Chapter 1: Prologue
An arrow whizzed through the trees, barely brushing a long hanging vine and sinking into the middle of the target propped up against a log covered in moss. A childish shout of victory echoed through the forest and a young elf scrambled towards the arrow, pulling it out and flourishing it victoriously.
“See! Fifty in one minute across the forest. I beat you!” The elf gleefully crowed to her brother.
The other elf, slightly bigger but still a child, rolled his eyes. “You beat me by one, and it took you how long?”
The younger one pouted, “Yes, but I’m younger than you, and better already. At my age you weren’t this good.”
The older elf opened his mouth to argue back, but the scent of fresh ozone reached them and both their faces lit up in recognition, argument forgotten in place of shared expectation.
“Ada!” Cried the older one excitedly, nearly vibrating in place as he glanced between his sister and the direction in which he knew his father would’ve appeared.
He waited only long enough for her to get down out of the tree before taking off through the dense forest, her light footsteps following. The two of them ran almost in sync, leaping under and over huge crawling vines, around giant fungi and scaling large elder trees to fling themselves from one to the next. The cries of giant cats and colorful birds followed them with the buzzing of insects, though neither hide nor hair of them was seen.
As they ran they collected more targets with arrows planted in them, barely stopping to wrench them out, so practiced that not a single one broke at the treatment. When they reached a giant tree split down the middle as if struck by lightning, the two broke off from their synchronization, each going a separate direction.
The younger went to the left, following a tiny stream that trickled under dead leaves and by slowly unfurling ferns. She ducked beneath low hanging branches and hopped across a collection of water-slick rocks, all the way collecting more arrows and targets, easily carrying them in the quiver and bag on her back.
Having gone right, the boy followed a short ravine peppered with more targets before running up a small incline to where the vines grew thick and tangling together like snakes. Hissing could indeed be heard, but once again there were no signs of the noise-makers.
By the time the two met up again their well-practiced dance was almost over, ending as they an elegantly carved basin, depositing the targets into it for the next time they came to play. The forest gave way then to a large expanse of golden brush covered tundra, dotted here and there by tall thin white trees and large rocks. The edge of the tundra was sudden in its transition to pebbly beach, but the ever pounding roar of the ocean softened whatever surprise there might have been in the abrupt change.
Racing across the plain, the children flew towards where two tall elves were walking close together, smiles easy on their lips.
“Ada! Naneth!” The children cried, their voices all but swallowed up by the sounds of the surf.
The only thing the water parted for was the great mass of stone running perpendicular to the ocean and even that it beat itself against, it’s slow quest of erosion fruitless in the dreamscape in which it resided. On one side the surf was free and open, disappearing far off into the distance with nothing to hold its comings and goings. On the other side of the stone there was a small bay where reeds grew, springing up along the edge of the water. They were untouched by the harsh pounding on the first side, barely swaying in a soft breeze, the water calm and gentle.
The older elves met the younger happily, the daughter speaking excitedly about her accomplishment that day. The strikingly blond father smiled proudly, though one side of his face failed to respond wholly to the emotional reaction, burned as it was with a scar the stretched across and down his neck to disappear underneath the collar of his shirt. Just as beautiful, though less blond, the mother laughed delightedly at their daughter’s excitement, both adults joining in the celebration with praise. All the while the son pouted and teased his sister, but when she wasn’t looking grinned just as broadly as she did, pride evident in his eyes.
The elven family meandered through the tundra of the dreamscape, settling down against the rocks and listening happily as the daughter recounted her tale of finally, finally beating her brother’s record with a bow.
The dreamscape, for that’s indeed what it was, was filled with joy, laughter ringing through the air and light in the partially cloudy daylight sky.
In the same dreamscape years later the two children had grown into fine young elves, and another child had been added to the family, his additions to the land showing in many ways, small red berried plants on the tundra and high abovethe sounds of hunting bird’s cries. The family had rejoiced at each new addition, and the youngest child, a son, grew with the long grasses that sprung up here and there, reaching up towards the sky.
The stars that could be seen when one looked below the horizon line twinkled merrily, indifferent to all that happened above. While such a thing would be impossible in the waking world, in this dreamscape it was normal, natural and expected. Above the horizon a time of day would be displayed, whether it was dawn or duck, midnight or high noon. Below, only the expanse of stars.
The edges of the island, because that’s also what it was, cut off like some great being had ripped it off of something bigger. In the forest roots hung out over the expanse of nothing, the trees growing deep into the air and vines hanging off into nowhere. The prairie had something of a cleaner cut, dotted here and there with larger plants too close to the edge that their roots also spread outward. The ocean was the loudest, huge waterfalls spraying out over the side, the crushing liquid spreading out and dissipating far below, yet never running dry.
The other child who had been added to the dreamscape and the elven family ran happily down the pebbly beach, followed closely by his ada in case he fell and hurt himself. His naneth currently spoke with her other children, discussing a border patrol with her daughter after she had finished speaking politics with her son. Joy still lingered here.
Not so many years later and there was a darkness that lingered, a fog of sorrow over the entire dreamscape. Instead of five elves there were only four. The three children, one younger than the others, and the ada, the naneth missing forevermore.
A light had been taken from the oldest elf, and nothing the others did or said could bring it back. When the depression set in, when the water started drying up, the oldest boy left.
Years, and he did not come back. As the plants died around the oldest elf, as the soil dried up and the ocean pulled back, he never came back. Soon the daughter left too, and it was just the elf and his youngest, trying desperately to get his ada back.
But when the ocean had completely disappeared, when the forest had turned to a museum of dried husks, and the reads were broken and snapped by the elf’s pacing, the child who was a child no longer finally stepped back. He had tried to reach his father, and he thought in his more hopeful moments that his father had tried to reach back, but there was nothing more he could do when his ada was so faded.
His grip on the other’s dreamscape was fragile, thinning as his ada distanced himself from the world and from his children. The boy let go, and the chasm between the dreamer and the elves he ruled over grew that much deeper.
Years later, the elf looked at the husk of what had once been a lively green forest, the desert that used to be wildly untamed prairies, the smooth sand that used to be ocean, and he wept.
Chapter 2: An Unexpected Waking
It was an unexpected sight that Bard opened his eyes to. He wasn't sure exactly what he had been expecting, but, he thought as he glanced around, it definitely wasn't this. The middle of the day somewhere, light shining down from an almost cloudless sky.
Frowning and wondering how he ended up, well, wherever here was, he decided that the first goal would be to move to higher ground, see if he could see anything familiar.
A giant rock formation shaped in something like a wonky edged bowl lay directly to Bards left, looking like someone had pressed a rod on top of it while it was drying so that it was flattened to the ground in the place closest to Bard and furthest. It looked, wrong, somehow. On his right dead trees stretched as far as the eye could see. Not fallen down or rotting, just dead, brittle looking. Like the slow death of Mirkwood, only many more years into the future when all the elves had traveled into the west and there was nothing left but ghosts. As if all the life had been sucked from the place.
With a shiver Bard quickly turned away from the trees. The rocks felt safer, more familiar. Additionally with the wide stretch of dirt that spread out from either side of where he stood, he'd probably be able to see something from the top of them. As he reached the nearest dip in the bowl small things started crunching under his feet, and Bard stopped to look down. For the first time he noticed the dried reeds that filled this portion of the bowl, spreading out in cracks and what once must've been mud before cutting off completely before the middle of the bowl and unbroken rock. Like everything else in this desolate place, it felt wrong.
There really should be water here, Bard decided, glancing around himself. And the stone really was too hard for these reeds to be growing on, not enough places for them to sink their roots in. He was surprised that had managed to live long enough to be this plentiful. Because they did look like they had been healthy, before the water dried up at least. But still, rock was no place for reeds to grow. It should be dirt, mud. Like the swampy edges of a lake. Which would of course mean that the far edge of the stone couldn't be so flat, elsewise the water would just pour out there. Pour out where he couldn’t say, as beyond it there looked to be something black creeping up from below the horizon. Perhaps trees far off in the distance, the land underneath them a dip so Bard couldn’t see it from where he stood.
Realizing that he was planning out how to fix something that could not be fixed, as well as in a place he did not know where, Bard stood straigher, giving his head a slight shake and striding forwards towards the highest point of the rock. Nimbly he climbed up it, ignoring the feeling in the back of his mind that he need to fix this place, fix it as soon as possible. He didn't even know where he was, for heaven's sake, he couldn't fix anything here.
The rock was smooth and likely fatally slippery when wet, but dry it was only a slight challenge to scale to the top. Once there however, all thought of the dead reeds and lack of water slipped his mind along with most of the breath in his lungs.
The view from the top of the rock—looking out upon that which he hadn't been able to see previously—was to say the least, stunning. Miles and miles of stars, distant and beautiful. Clustering here and there into patterns Bard could not name.
It didn't seem to matter that overhead the day was sunny, nor that the land he was standing on seemed solid and unmovable. The stars were merely there, stretching far beneath his feet and melting up into daylight as they neared the horizon line. Or perhaps it was the other way around, the daylight melting into the stars. Either way it was beautiful, shades of purple and black that seemed to paint the sky.
The endless expanse reminded Bard of the elves he ferried barrels for, radiant and lovely to look at, but when one spent too much time watching them, cold and far off, unobtainable. Chilled suddenly by this comparison, Bard turned around to see if he could recognize the landmarks instead of this suddenly appearing night.
As he pivoted, Bards foot caught on a jutting out rock, tripping him and sending him falling forward. Too late he reached out to catch himself, scrabbling uselessly as the smooth rock. With a cry he fell, hurtling towards the ground with nothing to catch or cushion his fall.
The moment of impact, and then...
In a dried up inlet that used to be filled with the sea, a small spray of fresh water splatted the rock. Wherever it touched the stone seemed to loosen and fall apart, becoming browner, more giving. Something that it had been not.
Bard opened his eyes with a gasp, twisting his fingers into the sheet beneath him. He twitched when the scrapes on his fingers from the battle caught on the rough fabric, the pain bringing him back to reality.
The dream was startlingly clear in his mind. Because of course that had been what it was. A dream, a weird, desolate and beautiful dream, but no more.
Rising to sit, Bard pressed the palms of his hands into his eyes, trying to dispel the need to fix the basin of stone. He had much more important things to fix in reality. And if his knees and hand hurt with faint scrapes along the sides where he had hit the rock on the way down, well, those were probably just from the battle.
As if on cue, a voice spoke from outside the tent. "King Bard, your presence is requested in the meeting tent of King Thranduil as soon as is possible."
Bard winced slightly at the title, squeezing his eyes shut as he drew his mind away from the failures of his ancestor Gideon. Clearing his throat he called out an answer in the affirmative, sending one last longing glance as his bed—if the blankets thrown on the stone ground could really be called that—before sliding out.
After getting up, Bard quickly changed his shirt to one that was slightly less offensive, splashed a little water onto his face, looked at himself in Sigrid's hand mirror and promptly gave up on all appearances. If the Woodland King wanted someone who actually looked like royalty he should've called on someone else. Bard was no king, just a bargeman who got a lucky shot in with the dragon. Besides, King Thranduil had showed no distain towards Bard before, neither the first short meeting that was the introduction of the new bargeman to the one he'd be working for, nor more recently when the elves brought help to Dale. Neither time he'd been dressed like a king, and neither time he'd been treated by the King with anything other than respect, if cold and distant. The latest time the Elvenking had actually spoken to him more or less like an equal.
It was as nice as it was horrifying. Bard was no one, just a bargeman with a bow, and yet now the people of Laketown called him King. The elves called him King, and the ice cold ruler of the wood elves treated him as an equal.
To get away from those suddenly overwhelming thoughts, Bard decided to check on Sigrid and Tilda in the room adjacent to the one Bard and Bain were staying in.
After the battle there had been no time to set up temporary shelters—for the men at least, the elves were a different story—and so the people had chosen still standing homes throughout the ruins of Dale. The one Bard's family was in now was actually quite nice, a large—though somehow quite simple—building with one side still standing. The other side was only slightly collapsed, more broken down by time than anything. With work it would become a nice place to live. For now it was half ruined, but a stable roof over their heads nonetheless.
After checking on his daughters and satisfied that they were asleep, he moved back to his own room and shook Bain's arm lightly. His son woke with a groan. Released in sloth before he visibly remembered the events that had transpired so recently and snapped awake.
"Da?" He questioned worriedly, running his eyes over his father and then glancing over to the door Bard had just exited
Bard was quick to reassure him that everyone was safe, the tension that left Bain at the reassurance only being picked up by Bard himself. His child was a child no longer. Granted, it was hard to have a coddled childhood in a place like Laketown, but more recent events, the death and destruction had torn the last of the child-like innocence from Bain.
Nevertheless, Bard didn't let the hesitation show as he continued speaking with barely a hitch. "King Thranduil had asked me to meet with him. I think because we were allies in the fight he wants to speak with me before we see the dwarves, so I need you to look after your sisters."
His son nodded, "Do you think the dwarves have changed their minds? Most of them seemed so nice when they stayed with us." He trailed off here, evidently also remembering those who had not been so kind.
No. Maybe. I hope so. Bard discarded the first two immediately, giving voice only to the third, then adding, "But even if they haven't, the elves are our allies. They will help up" Hopefully that bond was strong still. It would be dearly needed, especially in the coming winter. Tired at the thought, Bard smiled, wanting to offer encouragement. "I'm proud of you Bain, you've done so well through this."
"You too da." Bain returned the smile and Bard let out a small laugh, shaking his head in dry amusement.
"I'd better not keep King Thranduil waiting." He ran one hand through his son's already messed up hair and stood, grinning at Bain's protest and attempts to smooth his hair back down.
Getting to Thranduil's tent unstopped proved something of a challenge, as it seemed that everyone wanted attention or advice from the dragon killer. One day after what Bard privately thought of as the Battle of The Five armies, and it seemed like everyone was ready to move on. He knew however that this wasn't actually true. There were many who didn't even glance his way, or looked up him with a dull hope for being saved, but resigned like they knew there was no coming back from the loss and violence committed. Bard avoided their eyes as much as possible. He was a bowman. A bargeman. Definitely not the savior they were looking for. He had only stepped up because no one else was and these people had needed someone to look out for them. Still, he wasn't quite sure how he'd gone from being a generally disliked if useful member of society to one looked at and called king. He wanted to help these people, desperately wanting to be there for them, but he didn't know if he could. Didn't even think he could.
Shaking his head as he finally neared King Thranduil's tent amongst the temporary elven structures, he attempted to dismiss these worries from his mind. Who knew how King Thranduil would treat him now that the battle was won. That was what was more important at the moment.
The guards by the door gave him a nod and he ducked through the entrance, stopping when he saw the Elfking.
King Thranduil was seated at a small table pressed off into the side of the tent that the bowman hadn't noticed the last time he was here. The rest of it had been rearranged, though the planning table still sat in the middle. It was what was on the table however that drew Bard's attention first. Food. Not a ton of it, but far more—and far better--than Bard had seen in a long time.
"Come, sit with me and eat." King Thranduil said as an offer with a tone suggesting a command.
The elf nodded slightly as Bard approached and sat on the chair across from him, attempting not to stare. A salad, breadsticks, an assortment of wild and exotic fruits, slices of light meat. This food could feed his family for a week!
"You wanted to speak with me?" Bard inquired so as to put off eating.
It wasn't that he wasn't hungry, he definitely was, it was more that he didn't like the thought of eating such rich fair while his children made due on meager rations from the food the elves had brought. Not to mention the rest of the townsfolk taking all that they could get. It was thanks to the elves that they were not starving, but this here seemed like too much for one person.
As if reading Bard's mind, a light smile graced Thranduil's face. "You needn't worry about your children. I had assumed that they would still be resting, but once they are awake they will be invited to come and eat with my elves." Bard opened his mouth to argue that it was not fair that only his family should be given so much, but was cut off. "You are a king now. Of the remainders of Laketown and what will soon again be Dale. You will have to get used to a certain status apart from your people."
Bard blushed and looked down, slightly ashamed that he was so easily read. Besides, the elves had already saved them all. Laketown owed a debt it could never hope to repay. He would just ignore the fact the elves would've needed to be watching his family in order to know when they'd be awake.
"Thank you" He cleared his throat, meeting King Thranduil's eyes momentarily before reaching out for a couple of the fruits--one spikey round one and a soft striped oval.
He served himself some meat as well, waiting for a moment for the King to say anything else before starting to eat. It was a challenge, to say the least.
Now Bard didn't have a complete lack of manners, those had been drilled into him as a child and passed on as best he could to his own children, but it was a lot different when sitting across from an elf. Especially this elf in particular, a ruler in both appearance and demeanor. King Thranduil was ethereal, in one word. Exquisite beauty, not one hair out of place. The pale green clothes he wore fitting his form and a single dark emerald bracelet he wore highlighting his light coloring. Yet so distant and above all that around him. Consuming each piece of food with a grace that made Bard feel like a slobbering river dog across from him. Like the stars in Bard's dream. Someone to admire from afar, but never come too close to.
Not of course, that Bard had a problem with this. He could appreciate this elf just as much—or a little more—as he appreciated other elves and the world would not end. He would not fall in love, he would not lose his mind to hopelessness. Bard had long ago had his middle of the night freak out about liking men as much as women. While he had been terrified that his wife would react like all the other people he had seen, with disgust and anger, she had promptly put an end to that. Assuring him that she still loved him, and that there was absolutely nothing wrong with being able to admire both genders.
A soft crunching noise pulled Bard out of his thoughts and he realized that he had already finished all the food on his plate along with a lot more, and was now just chewing on the spine of a truly amazing sweet fruit that from the outside had looked almost rotten. Ducking away from his frank appraisal of the elf and hoping the other had not noticed, Bard put down the spine and sat back, wiping his hands on the napkin already provided. King Thranduil was already finished eating, and cleared his plate, placing the utensils and cup together so it'd be easy to pick up. The fruits went into a bag that Bard hadn't seen until now, and the meat and bread wrapped in leaves. It struck Bard as something odd, that the King would clean up after his own meals, but he tried to help nonetheless, stacking his own dishes with the others. He would've thought there would be servants to come and do such tasks.
"And now we must talk." King Thranduil stated, gliding across the room to stand in the center by the planning table. "Did you bring the stone with you?"
Despite not giving the name, Bard instantly knew what the King was talking about. The Arkenstone. The dwarf's jewel that Bilbo Baggins had given to them in an attempt to prevent a war.
Nodding, he pulled the stone out from his shirt pocket, feeling a slight disagreement with his limbs as he went to put it down. Still, he relinquished it for both their eyes to see.
"I assume then that we will be talking about the dwarves? For you to get your jewels and I to get help for my people." Bard questioned, tearing his eyes away from the jewel to meet the eyes of the King.
King Thranduil was frowning slightly as he examined Bard and the bowman felt almost trapped under his gaze, despite effort not to show it.
"You should be careful where you keep that stone." The elf warned, seemingly determined to call it naught more than a rock. "It has addictive properties not unlike certain artifacts of power from Mordor."
Instantly it was like a bucket of cold water poured over Bard, and he took a step back from the table, now looking at the gem, no, stone indeed, warily. Everyone knew of the madness of the rings of Mordor, that this would share any properties of such evil, and that he had been keeping it so close... "Was that what happened to Thorin? Why he refused to honor his word?"
King Thranduil tilted his head, the frown turning to something a bit more pinched as he admitted, "As much as I would like to say it was completely the greed and nature of dwarves, it is not unthinkable to guess that this did not play a part. It was exasperated, I imagine, by the dragon sickness that now lies upon the hoard of Erebor."
"Dragon sickness?" Bard asked, feeling more and more lost with this conversation.
"I know of dragons" King Thranduil said, turning to place Bard on his right, the elf's left hand twitching towards his own face as if to brush away a non existent stray piece of hair. "And I know of the sickness they leave in their wake, though I have not felt that myself. They are naturally hoarding creatures, once loving protectors of living beings and lands that they took as their hoard, twisted by evil to accept only the riches found from within rock and mines.
"This unnatural greed for gold and gems poisons and follows them like an aura" Thranduil continued, his words as mesmerizing as they were horrifying. "Infecting those around them and settling deep into the surroundings of dragons while they slumber. All of Smaug's nest would be poisoned with this contagious greed, first of just the Arkenstone, then also of the dragon himself. If the dwarves continue to keep it they will only stay under this madness."
And so wouldn't honor their agreements, nor give King Thranduil what he wanted, was unsaid but heard all the same. Still, more important was the question, "So anything given to help rebuild and your gems would also be under this sickness?"
But thankfully the elf shook his head. "No. As the treasure spreads out to your workers and what suppliers you find, the sickness will grow thin. Away from its cause and exposed to daylight it will not ensnare your people if they in their own greed do not hoard it." Alfrid would be taken then, if he had survived the battle. "And my gems are resistant to the sickness of dragons, such an evil will easily wash off of them. The stone will not take them either."
"My people," Bard grimaced slightly at the possessive. He had used it before, but this time he was choosing his words carefully without the heat of the moment "need the treasure promised in order to rebuild. We will not survive the coming winter without it, perhaps even with. Whatever happens with the dwarves, will we still have the friendship of the elves?"
King Thranduil watched Bard for a few moments, his head slightly tilted to the side like an animal faced with something they had not expected.
When the spoke, it wasn't to answer Bard's question, but to reply with one of his own. "What do you intend to do to survive this winter, dragon slayer? Will you look to rebuild Laketown or Dale?"
Slightly taken aback, Bard frowned. "That's not my choice. The people have lived their whole lives in Laketown, I cannot force them to move."
Saying nothing, King Thranduil merely raised one eyebrow, looking as though Bard's response had displeased him. For the life of him Bard could not understand why, but thought that perhaps the other wished to hear his own thoughts on the matter.
"Smaug's body is still in Laketown, the place is burned beyond recognition. If it were only me I would rebuild Dale." He conceded, looking away at the memory of his last time in Laketown, the burned bodies and buildings, the homes sinking into the water as fire blazed and people screamed.
"So you intend to give them a choice." The elf king somehow sounded scathing without even a hint of mockery in his tone, and Bard clenched his teeth. For all that the elves had helped his people, they still saw all mortals as beneath them.
"It's their lives, they should have a choice in this." He said once he could be sure his irritation could not slip through.
"And so if they were to choose Laketown you would spend far more than you can afford to rebuild the ruins of a town which could barely stay together in the first place? Come now King Bard, you know you will have to guide them." Here King Thranduil let out a small sigh. "If you wish to act like they have a choice in the matter, that is your own decision. But we both know they do not."
"They have had far too many choices taken from them under the rule of the Master. I will not be another like him.” He replied curtly.
"No." King Thranduil agreed lowly, surprising Bard. "No, I don't believe you will. However you must still understand that you cannot survive if you try and rebuild Laketown."
"I know" Bard replied just as quiet, but refused to say more.
Luckily that seemed like all he was looking for as a slight smile graced the elf's lips and he turned away to look down at the Arkenstone. "The friendship of the elves of Mirkwood is with your town King Bard." As though to take any kindness out of the words he had just spoken he added, "I hope that that won't be forgotten when Dale becomes prosperous again. You mortals do have such short lifetimes.
Bard went to argue but was cut off, "The friendship of the dwarves however will not come either of our ways. Alliances will be made, yes, but dwarves are greedy, they do not care for any not their own."
Refraining from saying that elves were the same way, just hid it prettily, Bard nodded slowly, choosing to pass on from the previous topic. "Though I'd like to see it happen, after speaking with Thorin I don't think they'll change their minds so quickly. Do you know if any of them survived?"
"I have not heard if any of them remain so, but the hobbit and Tauriel managed to keep Durin's kin alive through the battle. Whether they will survive their wounds or not it yet to be seen, as is who will speak for them in the meantime. Dain of the Ironhills also survived, and is not one easily dealt with" he warned, and even Bard could catch the uneasy distain on his face as he spoke of Tauriel, choosing to focus on that for now rather than the warning of the Iron Hill’s king
After learning that she had been the reason his family had made it out Bard felt nothing but thankfulness to the elf, so it was good to hear between the lines that she had survived. The hobbit had also been helpful, one of the only really friendly ones to Bard before they had gone to the mountain, and having given them the Arkenstone so that they didn't need to go to war. He didn't know what Thranduil had against the former elf, but it looked like the elf king wasn't quite settled with it either.
Bard was saved from having to come up with a response by an elven voice alerting them both from outside, ducking in to inform King Thranduil of something in elvish.
The king nodded and turned back to Bard. "Your children are here if you'd like to join them. We will both have to deal with the dwarves in the coming days. I trust that we will be dealing with them together"
As much as the first sentence was not a suggestion in it's ending the conversation, so the last sentence was a light question.
Bard dipped his head slightly in return as he gathered the Arkenstone once more in cloth, this time putting in his outside pocket. "Given past actions, I do not think it would be in either of our best interests to attempt to deal alone.”
King Thranduil inclined his head slightly in agreement and Bard slipped out of the tent.
The rest of the day only got busier from there, especially as Bard had no idea if anything had really been accomplished from that meeting. Still, soon it slipped to the back of his mind, through checking on his children to make sure they were not too uncomfortable with the elves—Tilda definitely wasn't, taking the time to question them on everything from how they keep their hair so neat to what distant lands had they traveled—talking to people who came to him with questions and requests, and bustling around attempting to get answers and fill said requests, so far that the sun had long since fallen before anything came from it.
Bard had just gotten back to the house his family had claimed and would probably keep, considering how convenient a place in the town it held and how big it would be once repaired, when an elf appeared as if she had been waiting for him.
He didn't recognize her, even when she spoke in a slightly lower tone that he had come to expect of a female elf. "My King wishes to inform you that the hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, will be speaking for the dwarves of Erebor, and there shall be a meeting tomorrow morning as the sun rises."
"The hobbit is speaking for the dwarves?" Bard repeated incredulously.
When had that happened, and more importantly, why? Would his voice hold weight here? Reminding himself that this elf would not know as she didn't answer, he thanked her lightly and watched as she left.
The hobbit had been the most reasonable of those who had gone to Erebor, having proved that while he wished his dwarves to live, he would also try and do what was best for everyone. If he indeed had authority here it would be a better outcome than Bard could've hoped for after having dealt with Thorin. Dain then would be the only one bringing the greed of dwarves into their dealings. Bard shook his head, all of a sudden exhausted. He was thinking like Thranduil might. Then again the past few days had shattered many of his misconceptions about the goodness of dwarves. Bringing only fire and ruin, then turning their backs without even a reason. Well, greed for gold as a reason, but that was not one that took any validity when held up against saving lives.
Trying to drive away such morose thoughts, Bard slipped inside, asking his already gathered children how their days had gone and if they were doing alright. He wasn’t surprised to learn that Tilda had chosen to help the healers and Sigrid the cooks, as Tilda was always jumping back and forth between hobbies and Sigrid had always loved baking. His daughters sounded quite well with the jobs that they were doing, the slightly haunted look in their eyes one they all avoided speaking of. Bard was glad to know at least that Tilda was safe among elves and had actually noticed some of them watching out for her, as well as Sigrid with people from Laketown whom Bard knew well.
He supposed the reasoning for the former watching out for his daughter was with King Thranduil's instructions, and was thankful for it despite knowing it was probably only to keep away from hostility between the men and elves. They were doing well together since the elves had arrived, and it would not do to have that change while the added burden of dealing with the dwarves came closer.
Bain had gone to help sort supplies, finding out what they had and what needed to still be found or put together. The boy had always had a head for numbers and words, one that Bard had tried to nurture, as little as he knew about them himself past the knowledge he needed for his job. That he was helping note down all that the people had and what they needed was almost perfect for using his talents and Bard was happy for him. That his job also involved the marking down of those who still lived and those who no longer did was not so reassuring. Still it was a lot less scarring then if Bain had decided to join those looking for bodies amongst the fallen, and pulling orcs and goblins aside to burn. There was no official command that those bodies be or not be looted, but Bard had seen more than one person carrying something that looked like it came from an orc over the course of the day. He hoped the same wasn't happening to the dead of the men, elves, and dwarves.
In turn Bard told them snatches of his own day, trying not to coddle them, but also avoiding things that might get them unnecessarily worried. He told them of the meeting the next morning and that he'd be gone when they woke. Mostly he let them talk.
After speaking for a while it was Sigrid who ushered them all to bed, stating quite firmly that the four of them were alive and would all need rest for the coming morning.
She had been the one to step up in place of her mother early on, and though Bars hated such a task being forced upon her, he knew he could not do everything without falling apart and leaving them worse off than before. So with reassuring hugs and words all around, they set off to their close but respective sleeping areas, Sigrid and Tilda on a beat out mattress in their room and Bain and Bard across from each other on blankets and anything soft they could find in the ruins. He would have to get them better sleeping arrangements, but that would come when it could. There was so much else to deal with for now.
Bard was asleep before his head hit the rolled up jacket that was his pillow.
Chapter 3: A Meeting and An Unexpected Guest
And then opening his eyes in the middle of a stone basin, enclosed all around by rock with a deep dip on one side that opened to a desolate prairie, and a smaller dip on the other side over which nothing but sky could be seen. His head ached a little as he glanced up to where he had climbed, but he ignored the phantom pain. It was strange that he was back here again, but not altogether unwelcome. This place was sad, in need of work to give it life again, but it still somehow felt like he belonged. Bard wasn't sure how, but he knew it was possible to fix and he knew he could do it.
There was always the possibility of failure, but if he could fix this broken place maybe he could also fix what was wrong, elsewhere, back in the waking world. Despite not know how to fix anything, Bard would succeed at this here, and succeed elsewhere as well.
A step forward had him sinking into the ground a little and Bard crouched, frowning as he drew his hand through the dirt at his feet. Before the bottom of this rock formation had been all stone, had it not? But now there seemed to be dirt. A thin layer of dirt, Bard amended as he pressed his fingering into the covering until they hit rock, but earth nonetheless. Perhaps a little too grey as well, but all in all better than the last time he had seen this place, so long ago. No, it couldn't have been that long, he frowned, hadn't it only been a short time ago? Time seemed a bit hazy. He could remember being here before, but it was like no time had passed at all. Years? Honestly Bard wasn't quite sure, nor was he sure why that wasn't bothering him as much as it should. It didn't really matter how long it had been, only that this place seemed to be getting better, more capable of supporting life than it had been the last time where everything was rock and hard packed dust.
Ignoring the lack of reasoning, Bard stood, this time going away from the walls and the stars that could be seen behind it, heading for the only place that could be an exit without any climbing at all.
He slowed as he approached the dead and crumpled reeds, wondering why they had fallen. Without any wind present their positioning made no sense, as if something or someone had swept in and scattered the dried husks to the ground. Here and there small stumps jutted out from the ground, but for the most part the dead ones covered them up. Now that he wasn't so consumed with the need to find out where he was—because it didn't really matter, he had left once and come back, this was a dream, he would do so again—Bard could take the time to actually examine the stalks. They were huge, much bigger than ones he had seen before, almost as big around as three of his fingers, as well as covered in flat leaves every hand width or so. But they were all dead, dried out and useless for even the process of rotting and fuelling new growth.
Going from what the bowman knew of growing things, which honestly wasn't all that much, living in the middle of a lake and everything, any new reeds which would try to grow from the buried roots would die without the sun or enough water. So while Bard couldn't at the moment do anything about the lack of water, he could crush up the dead reeds and leave a layer of crushed plant all over the ground to cover the new shoots but still allow them to come up. Plus adding water and time would turn it into soil, and perhaps that would be enough to persuade the plants to life. Reeds were very determined plants after all. If it didn't work, Bard would just try something else.
With this in mind, he began to work.
He started at one side of the stone basin where the reeds had grown out sparsely towards the edges and moved inwards. The dead stalks he crushed in his hands, the reeds falling apart into unnaturally short thin strips, completely different that they should have. Still, that along with the crumpling leaves made Bard's job easier and he stuck to it. He was about an eighth of the way done when between one blink and the next he was looking up at the stone ceiling of their claimed building in Dale.
Had he really spent all night crushing reeds? His hands sure felt like it, tired and aching. Bard let out a soft groan and rolled over, slinging his arm across his face. It was still dark out, so why was he up? And why had he had another dream in the same place? That rarely happened to Bard, any type of dream that had even a reoccurring theme or characters. He rarely even dreamt in the first place. Two dreams in two nights in the same place was unheard of in his life. But it had been almost soothing, calming amidst the turmoil of reality. Work that didn't have any Master looking over his back every moment, had no elves watching him from far shores with judging eyes. Just pick up a stalk, pull off the leaves, crush them together, grab the stalks, shred them, spread them and repeat.
Here in the waking world he had to guide people when he had never done so before, deal with war when the only injuries or deaths he had seen before were from accidents or illness. Nothing like the gore or horror of the battlefield. The dealings with those who cared nothing for others. The dwarves! He had that meeting with King Thranduil, Bilbo Baggins, and Dain this morning.
Scrambling off his bed area while trying to be quiet, Bard nearly fell over in his haste. Quickly and as quietly as possible, Bard grabbed the bag of supplies he had managed to snatch from his flight out of Laketown, picking from it the only clean clothes he had. While he really should've worn them to the meeting with King Thranduil the day before and didn't remember why he hadn't, he was quite thankful now. King Thranduil for whatever reason—though perhaps it was because Bard was preferable to the dwarves—did not seem to look down upon him for his dress or manner. Dain most likely would, though Bilbo Baggins probably wouldn't. While he didn’t actually care, it might make the dwarf king easier to deal with.
All the time he'd been fussing over what he would be thought of,Bard had been quickly changing, grimacing slightly at the ash that clung to him and colored his clothes grey. In the end it really didn't matter as there was nothing that could be done, but Bard still would've preferred to make something of a respectable statement. Ah well, he was just a bowman after all. They could just deal with that.
It was only by the grace of the Valor that Bard got to the meeting tent unstopped. For such an early hour there were many people up and about, healers, messengers, and many more he couldn't even tell the purpose of. When he finally got there Bard was pleasantly surprised to find that he was only the second person there, King Thranduil of course being the first. In the middle of the room was a large table covered sparsely in picking food and a jug of wine.
"King Thranduil" Bard greeted, doing a good job of pretending he hadn't speed walked the whole way, if he said so himself.
"King Bard" The other returned with an equal dip of his head. With a small gesture around the empty tent he added, "As you can see, we are the first here. Would you like a drink?"
The elf king had his own cup already in his hand, but Bard hesitated, not wanting to seam rude by refusing but slide not ensuring strong alcohol so early in the morning. Elvish wine was extremely strong, as Bard had found out before the battle.
Luckily it seemed King Thranduil understood without him having to say anything, as the King clarified with a tip of his cup, "This is not wine, rather a younger fruit drink we have imported from over the mountains to the west."
"Ah, yes then, that would be nice. I'm afraid I didn't have much time to do anything other than waking up and getting here" Bard admitted.
The elvenking nodded as he filled up another cup from a pitcher on a side table. Not the one in the middle, Bard observed but dismissed any importance of. The human king reached out to take the goblet and frowned as he noticed small bits of reeds still stuck in his fingernails. How they had gotten there from his dream? The drink was pressed into his hand and he automatically took it with a quiet thanks, still looking thoughtfully at his fingers. A sharp intake of breath drew his gaze to King Thranduil and Bard was surprised to see the other staring at his hand with far too much shock in his eyes. Surely it wasn't that bad? He himself had a reason to be shocked as it had happened while he was asleep, but small bits of reeds shouldn't put such a face on the elvenking.
Especially since they probably weren't reeds. Bard had been working with quite a few different materials and in different places for the last few days. It was much more likely that the pieces were simply grass, broken off and stuck.
"How-" Whatever else the other had been about to say was cut off by a guard from outside announcing new arrivals.
"Bilbo Baggins, the speaker for the dwarves of Erebor, his advisor Balin son of Fundin, and Mithrandir."
Bard looked over and smiled as the hobbit came through the tent flaps. The man’s smile turned a little less genuine as the other two followed him in. Likewise the greetings followed the same pattern. It wasn't that Bard had anything against either Gandalf or the dwarf, merely King Thranduil's reactions leaking through on the former and Bard's own crushed hope on the latter. It had been Thorin who had refused to give the much needed aid, but it had only been Bilbo who had done something about it. Bard had tried to get them to see reason, but one could not help someone who didn't want to be helped.
Slightly confused however at having been the first one to greet the newcomers, he glanced over at King Thranduil, surprised to find him still watching Bard's hands. The shock had given way to confusion, and this too drained in bitter resignation before the bold mask of the elven king was back in place.
"Hobbit, Mithrandir" His greetings were even colder than Bards had unintentionally been. Without giving them a chance to reply he continued, directing his question to the smallest among them. "How is it that you came to speak for Erebor?"
Master Baggins frowned slightly offended, glancing down and scuffing one foot across the floor as he answered. "Thorin, Fili, and Kili cannot come here to talk right now. Out of all the dwarves, I’m the only one who’s already spoken with you two so it was decided that well, that I should do so again."
"Will they survive?" Bard asked, concerned about the line of Durin no matter how dishonorable their leader had proven to be. Well, susceptible to the Arkenstone and dragon sickness, he supposed was a better description.
Master Baggins shot Bard a slightly thankful smile and nodded, "They should. Scars and memories, but they'll live."
A soft huff came from King Thranduil and the hobbit visibly stiffened, evidently expecting scorn or amusement though Bard had heard neither in the elf's small noise.
"And your relationship with Thorin Oakenshield would no doubt be an influence as well." He drawled softly, focusing intently on the hobbit. "You are a being of soft hills and sun filled grasslands, do you intend to stay buried underground for the rest of your life?"
Taking a small step back as if King Thranduil had dealt him a physical blow, Master Baggins looked stunned. Bard himself was rather confused. The hobbit and dwarf king were in a relationship?
"That is not the purpose of our discussion here." The dwarf advisor Balin—whom Bard recognized as being kindhearted at least, despite his initial lies—spoke up in a firm voice. "We're here to speak on debts owed and the Arkenstone."
"Will you be honoring those debts then?" Bard asked hopefully, not particularly wanting to hope that this could end diplomatically but unable to stop himself.
It was Master Baggins who answered, still evidently a little unnerved by King Thranduil's comment and question, but steady in his answer. "The treasure promised to Laketown will be given to help you rebuild. Since Thorin was a little unspecific on how much he was promising you we'd like to set up a few more meetings between our people to find out how much you'll be needing."
"Although we would like to know first if you intend to try and rebuild Laketown rather than Dale." Balin added
Sending a sideways glance at King Thranduil at the reminder to their recent conversation, Bard made a mental apology to his people. "We will be rebuilding Dale."
The elvenking tilted his head in a small nod of approval and the man didn't know whether to feel patronized or reassured. He knew it was the better option, but he didn't like forcing people to do things. Then again, they had placed him as their king, their leader. Dale would have to be the end goal. Bard would not be like the Master had been, stealing all of their money and sitting in luxury while the town decayed around him, but he also couldn't allow himself to be too complacent to potentially dividing wishes. He needed to be better.
"And the gems?" King Thranduil spoke up and Bard blinked, realizing he'd been staring at the other while sorting out his thoughts.
Here Balin was the one to look away and Master Baggins to stand up straight. Again though there was an interruption in the form of Dain barging his way into the tent without even waiting for his arrival to be finished announcing. Had Bard not known differently he could've sworn that the dwarf had waited outside to enter at the perfect moment just to spite King Thranduil. And the other did indeed look spited.
"Ah, Dain of the Ironhills, finally decided to join us. When it isn't blood and war you have no time for the duties of kingship." King Thranduil mocked in an even tone
The dwarf bared his teeth in something that couldn't pass for a smile. "Unless there's negotiation needed here for you knife ears to remove yourself from this land and go back to that rotting forest of yours, I don't see any reason for you to be here."
“We’ve all got reason to be here” Bard defended, irked at the dwarf’s behavior.
Whether or not the dwarves and elves had feud going on, they needed to be civil at least for the coming discussion.
Before Dain could retort, Master Baggins cut in, “The gems that belong to the elves will be returned to them”
From there the meeting descended into controlled chaos. Dain didn’t think that anything should be given to the elves, and Master Baggins refused to cheat anyone out of anything, regardless their species. From here Dain started insulting Master Baggins about him being a hobbit and not a dwarf, and therefore had no right to speak for Erebor or any of her treasures.
A short clip in khuzdul by Bain quickly put a stop to that, and for the rest of the meeting unless it involved his own people Dain stayed mostly quiet.
Laketown would be paid what they were owed, though it was decided that until they had a safe place to keep said gold and gems, they would be given lighter, easily guarded treasures to keep as collateral for useful ones. Though this brought up a point of worry due to Thorin’s stubbornness about bargaining even for the Arkenstone, it was eventually settled upon. Whatever gems were owed to the elves would be given.
There were a few more agreements to be settled and wrapped up, and by the time they all went their separate ways Bard had completely forgotten about the odd behavior of the elven king, his mind far elsewhere.
That night Bard was back in the stone basin, crushing stems and spreading them, pressing dirt between his fingers that he knew hadn't been there the last time. He didn't know what he was doing to help but whatever it was, it was working. The place itself seemed to want to be helped. Taking Bard’s meager offerings and turning them into something brilliant.
Nights and days passed, and in and out the two realities changed, the daytime one being worked on by many pairs of hands and the nighttime by only one. The hours that Bard spent in the nighttime reality were long and tiring, yet filled him with a sense of accomplishment that couldn't be found so easily during the day.
Not to say that he was always working at night. He was always during the days, except for brief moments he snatched up to spend with his children, so some nights he merely sat and rested. Often he’d climb up the walls of the basin and look out at the enchanting stars, watching as they twinkled and the sky above changed colors, always melting evenly into the horizon. Sometimes Bard would walk, exploring what he found out to be an island, to big for him to follow the entire circumference in one night. With time, he determined that the only thing wrong with the place, other than the sections that Bard just didn’t feel were right, was the lack of water. Everything had just dried up.
In the waking world work progressed as well, as it was a different problem so they were at different rates, non comparable in the end.
While the finished clearing of the battlefield of bodies was progress, it couldn't feel like such when the acid stench of burning orc and goblin filled the air, when families mourned at the sights of their lost loved ones. When beings that were supposed to be immortal were laid out never to move again. When from sight alone the story could be told that the dead brought in today were only wounded yesterday and now forever silent. When the cleared field was still covered in blood and pressed down from the weight of bodies.
Bain joined their record keeper to meet with the dwarves, and over the course of many hours settled on a range of what would be paid to help with the restoration of the town. The actual reality of pain and death had Tilda shying away from the healing tents, moving onto to other serving work in the form of stitching clothing together and making jackets and blankets for the coming winter. Sigrid continued on in the kitchens, even after the elves left, she moved with the people to a house they had set up as a communal eating area where food was rationed.
Night was a different story, calmer and without any type of upcoming winter as its deadline. The crushed and laid out reeds turned to earth when Bard finished and went back over them, sifting his fingers through the remains and finding them thicker and more earthy than they should've been. When he had finished with the reeds there had been a time in which he had merely walked, spending almost two weeks worth of sleep exploring the place further and laying quietly wherever he felt like it. It was as if the land he was in wanted him to fix it however, and the next step in its reparations was easily found once he started looking for it.
Having noticed how the rock in the middle of the basin was slowly cracking apart Bard had gone to investigate, using his hands at first and then a stone to widen and chip away at the crevasses. Since it was taking too long to do by hand, Bard came up with the idea to climb to the top of the walls and throw some of the heavier more dense rocks down. Testing from a lower height showed that they wouldn't shatter and seemed heavy enough to crack the already broken ground. When actually dropping the rocks from the top however, the ground didn't crack.
Instead the rocks sunk into it like it was mud, what should have been solid rock opening up easily. Around the fallen rock the ground had buckled outwards in short ripples that could easily be broken apart. While that was surprising, it was the consistency of the now malleable rock that had Bard stunned. Rather than being fine and grainy like sand, the rock was earthy, compressible, and smelt like dry dirt. The depth the rock had sank didn't matter either, Bard found out as he dug. The transformed earth was deep in the ground, ringed on all sides by the stone that hadn't been initially moved. More experimentation led to the discovery that it was only if rocks were dropped that the stones around them turned to organic substance, and another many nights passed with Bard climbing the walls and throwing rocks into the basin, only to return to the bottom and dig and mix the soil.
In the daytime everything seemed to rebel against being repaired. One could look back at a days work of manual labor and negotiation and see only hours. The homes that had been claimed were only beginning to be rebuilt, skeletons and natural traps everywhere one turned. Things changed, but the process was slow and painful. People had lost everything with little to help them build back up. They were living in the abandoned ruins of a once great city, now crumbling despite their best efforts to set it to rights. The gold of Erebor, promised to them by Thorin and given to them by Bilbo was a great help to have, but even that required workers to pay, workers who were simply not there. Travel took time, finding people took time, everything was slow going even as winter started to creep in and the first flakes of deadly snow fell from the sky.
The elves were a huge help. King had a large group of elves with specialties in healing, growing, building and the like stay in Dale, the majority of their specialized warriors and the king himself going back to Mirkwood less than a month after. The ancient beings had seen kingdoms fall and grow, and knew the best ways of helping them grow in the ruined city and mountain. Not that the elves would be caught dead giving aid to Erebor for free. Instead it was the hobbit whom King Thranduil had negotiated with, Bard for some reason being privy to most of the meetings.
It was odd ho much time he ended up speaking or being around the elven king and dwarven representatives. Sometimes Gandalf would need to speak with him and Thranduil would just happen to be speaking with the hobbit and dwarves in the same tent. Other times he would be urgently needed by someone who happened not to show up, but oh look, there were the dwarves and elves negotiating, why doesn't Bard wait over there? It got tiring, the amount of work Bard put into making sure both sides kept their tempers. Him and Master Baggins became the mediators for the two races, and friends as well during that time. So while Bard’s relationship with the current stand in king of the dwarves was well, his relationship with King Thranduil was, odd. The other seemed determined that Bard learn how to be a king, and taught him in private through mockery and questioning, all in a tone that suggested he had much better things to do. When among others however, King Thranduil would take Bards side in arguments, stand by him and take no ill comments from Iron Hills dwarves about the inexperienced king.
And each night, inevitably, Bard would return to the stone basin on the island in the middle of stars. Everything and nothing changed the night Bard started stacking the fallen rocks on the far side of the basin to cut it off from the nothingness that surrounded. He had finished turning the bottom of the basin to dirt three nights previous and the elves had gone back to Mirkwood weeks before.
It had made sense, to finish one of the two downed sides of the basin. If water was going to go in there—which Bard was positive it would—it couldn't just fall off of one side and drain again, something had to be done to stop it. Seeing as the rocks that Bard had dropped hadn't turned to earth themselves, he had decided to use them to stack up a wall. As it was like with the rest of this dream, the rocks were perfect. They became like putty, molding into the empty spaces he directed them to. It wasn’t easy work, but it was manageable.
Bard was stacking a rock and smoothing it out to meld with the others, and had turned to grab another when he was blocked by someone who had not been there before. No one had ever appeared in Bard's dream previously. And had Bard thought about it happening, which he had not, but if he had, the elf king of Mirkwood would not have been his first thought to who would’ve resided in such a place.
Still, he took in almost comical stride, politely asking, "Can you pass me that rock? The one that looks like a house."
The look of anger and confusion on King Thranduil's face promptly changed to bewilderment. For a few patient moments he was quiet, then when he spoke it was not to answer Bards request.
"Why are you here?" He asked as if it wasn’t him who was the intruder.
"Because this is my dream" Bard responded casually, moving around the king to pick up another rock, as it looked like the other would be of no help here.
In all honesty Bard was slightly miffed that King Thranduil wasn't even going to help. But if he was just going to ignore how much this place needed the work, he could do it alone. As long as he didn't get in Bard's way, or disturb the peaceful solitude that the man found here.
"And why are you here?" Bard returned the question after the elf merely stood in silence for a whole minute while the man worked. "If you plan to stand around and do nothing"
The silence behind Bard turned frosty with unconcealed anger. "There is no helping here."
The man straightened, brushing his hands off on his thighs as he looked at the other incredulously. Flinging his hands out in a gesture to encompass the whole of the basin, he protested, "How can you say that? This place was unyielding stone and now it's tilled earth. Once this wall is fixed the basin will be able to be filled with water. Crushing up the reeds spread their seeds, they'll start to grow again. Of course it can be fixed. This place wants to be fixed. It’s been four months and most of the time I’ve spent sitting and doing nothing. So much has changed."
There was no way Bard would've been speaking to the real King Thranduil like this. Still, this dream shade seemed less real, more approachable. He frowned at that, using the elf's silence to examine him as to why that was. The other wasn't wearing his ceremonial robes, instead more casual looking ones that would still cost enough to feed Bard's family for a month. His body language and excess of expressions were different too. Shock was painted on his face as he examined the basin, seemingly not noticing Bard examining him. King Thranduil held himself differently here too, not slouching, but looser, without the weight Bard had never before noticed him carrying in the real world. Strange, that the human's mind would add so much life to the mostly cold king. Strange, but it didn't change the fact that he was intruding in this space Bard had been so grateful to call his own. Though if he stayed quiet and out of the way Bard supposed he wouldn't mind.
"I don't understand" Alas, it was not to be. "Why would you be here? Why are you trying to fix this?”
Internally Bard sighed, accepting that he would have to acknowledge the other. Turning to explain, he took a second to be uncertain as to why he wasn't just ignoring the figment of his imagination and actually wanting the other to understand. Perhaps it was his way of figuring out what he was doing himself.
"Outside, out there in reality," Bard began, making a gesture that really didn't help him be understood, "I'm expected to be a king. To know what I'm doing when I'm speaking with rulers, creating delegations, trying to figure out what needs to be done, all this kingly stuff. But I'm not. I don't know what I'm doing! You help some, or the real you does, though I can't figure out what you're telling me half the time or why you're helping. Bilbo helps because he knows as little as I. But I'm responsible for so many people now, and they expect me to be able to help them, when I've no idea how.
"I'm still just a bargeman," His voice had risen and he forced it back down to a calmer tone, attempting to put sense into the tirade. "I can't rule people, I don't know how. Here, here I can help. I may not be a builder, but this place responds. It wants to be fixed. I can't imagine how long it must've been abandoned. It's all dried up, like the water just disappeared one day. It's like, it's like Dale, except that it actually wants to be fixed."
Bard was sure something must've come loose in his brain that he was so vehemently trying to explain this and repeating himself so often, but it didn't really matter. No one else would know. No one else would care. This belief wilted somewhat as he looked up at the other, hunching his shoulders in and biting his lip.
The imagined Thranduil looked so close to the real one at the moment, black faced and staring at Bard. There was a fire in his eyes though, one that belied some sort of passionate response he was trying to hide. Honestly, Bard couldn't tell if the other was about to attack him or, well, do something that he knew the elven king would never do. Staring at Bard as he was, the bargeman found that he couldn't look away. It lasted until Bard was shifting in place, wishing he had not said so much.
"You will make a good king." Thranduil said, the look in his eyes hidden away again. "You are inexperienced, yes, but your people know this and do not expect more than you can give. With time and growth, you will be a great king, perhaps better than those Dale has had before.
The words were so strange coming from the elven king, and for a moment Bard felt touched that such a creature would compliment him so.
Then reality—or rather the lack of reality here—swept back in and he laughed without humor. "It is good to hear someone say as much, even if only my own mind.
Thranduil tilted his head. "You said something to that effect before. Am I not real?"
"No. You are not."
The other's mask stayed for a few more seconds before it dropped and a small amused smile graced his lips. Thranduil inclined his head slightly in agreement with Bard. As if the revelation of his own non-existence was comforting, the elven king seemed to relax. In a few strides he had walked over to a large boulder and swiftly scaled the side in a way that should've been clumsy and led to a prompt fall, but he somehow made it look easy and filled with grace. Perching on the top, Thranduil cocked his head and just watched him.
After a few moments of being uncertain as to what the other was doing, Bard mentally shrugged and went back to work.
A few more moments and the elf spoke again, this time without the commanding lit to his voice that demanded full attention. "Is that why you started fixing this place? To prove that you could change things?"
Bard continued to add rocks to the wall as he pondered his answer, slowly speaking. "That may have been a part of it, yes. But it's more that I wanted to help. To be faced with the death of war and winter in the waking world and then the death of abandonment in my dreams was too much. In both I need to do something to fix it."
"But what you do here affects you. You had pieces of the reeds under your fingernails, dust on your clothes and scrapes on your arms." Thranduil noted. "Does it not wear you down, all of this work?"
Twisting his arms with a frown, Bard did notice the scrapes that cut through them. He had assumed that they were from the manual work he did in real life, the cleaning up of the broken homes to give people safe places to sleep. While quite a lot of his new job was thinking and talking, there was still time for physical labor.
He reiterated this assumption to the elf, scrubbing at a piece of dirt that had caked onto his arms by sweat. Giving up when he only succeeded in smudging it around, he added, "This work doesn't wear me out. Its calming, full of menial tasks that don't require hard thought. My body's asleep and getting me ready for a new day, but that doesn't mean I can't be doing things at the same time. And I’m not always working. Quite often I just walk, or sit and let my mind wander. It’s peaceful here, despite how dead it is."
It really didn't make sense out loud. But it worked, somehow.
"That makes no sense." Thranduil repeated Bard's thought and the man snorted softly.
He wasn't planning on expanding though, as he himself didn't really understand what he was doing or how it worked. Lucid dreaming every night, building up a place that doesn't exist, waking with reeds under his fingers and scrapes, as Thranduil said, dust on his clothes. But that wasn't from the dream, things like that didn't happen. This, or rather, out there, was reality. In reality things like that didn't happen.
"None of this makes sense" Bard murmured, turning to squint at the elf, tilting his head slightly as if that would make things make more sense.
The other seemed to stiffen, staring back at Bard with a frozen gaze.
Then it thawed and a light smirk rested on his face as he commented, "You were a bargeman, not a laborer"
Aware that this was a complete change of subject, Bard allowed it to happen, letting his mind slip away from the disturbing thoughts.
Turning back to work, Bard attempted to press a particularly stubborn piece into place. "Yes, that's true. But that was never what I wanted to do. It was only what allowed me the most freedom while the whole of Laketown was under the Master's thumb."
"He hated you and yours" Thranduil commented
Bard snorted, "He hated everything that could be a threat to his power, real or imagined. Myself, my children." Here he paused to swallow. "My wife"
A companionable silence fell. It was tinted by sorrow, but one Bard knew was shared. The other had lost his wife years before Bard was born, but the force of his grief and change in personality was a heavy point of gossip for a couple of the much older Laketowners.
It was said that the ice kind been full of life before her death. That the corruption of Mirkwood came about because of his grief. A favorite theory was that elves ceased to be after their love died. That Thranduil had started to die and now only a shell remained, not enough to protect Mirkwood or show emotion, just enough to rule the distant elves. Bard had seen enough of the real elf king's emotions to be reasonably sure this theory on the king wasn't true, but the other part he wasn't so sure of.
"You lost your wife a long time ago, but do elves not die when the one they love does? "
He froze immediately after the question, regretting having blurted it out without any tact. There had been no reason to ask other than his own curiosity, and how would this figment know anyways?
"I'm sorry" Bard started, turning again to the elf, "That wasn't-"
"The curiosity and bluntness of a man?" Thranduil interrupted, an eyebrow raised in mocking question.
Bard cringed, waiting for whatever ire was going to come his way next.
Chapter 4: Interlude #1
Much of the world had changed while he was not looking. Many things were different, many people were different. Many rules that had held firm for centuries were now casually broken, nary a thought to what was happening. The biggest case of this happening that he could think of stood in front of him, a contrite look on the mans face as he cringed against the partially built wall as if he could hide from the words he had just spoken.
Had anyone else said such a thing they would've been smart to fear for their life. But here in his own dreamscape it was easy to be calm, practiced to relax. He wouldn't say that his first instinct hadn't been violence or a severe tongue-lashing. Merely that it was easier to come down from, to know that this was a place of peace—sorrowful, but still peaceful—and to acknowledge that the man didn't know any of this was real. And hadn't such a thing been amazing to find out.
At first when faced with an intruder in the only safe place he had left a mix of fury and confusion had almost overcome him. He had wanted to know how this man had gotten into his dreamscape and why the other was there. When asked such a ridiculous question he hadn't known how to respond. It had completely thrown him off. When prodding further revealed the man thinking that all of this was his dream, a sort of peace had fallen over the actual dreamer. The realization that the dreamer had security in being thought fake was almost mind blowing. He could say whatever he wanted, hold an honest conversation, and have no risk of his actual opinions being known. All he had to do was make sure the other never knew that this dreamscape was real too.
And that it was this human helped. A new king, one that the dreamer himself was teaching, helping. Because how could he do less when faced between the options of letting him fall and letting him be taught by the dwarves? The very thought made him shudder. Dwarves, ensnaring the new king before anything could be done. It was beyond imagining. Especially this king, this man. He was, interesting. So against violence, trying to protect everyone he could. Yet standing up to the dreamer passionately and speaking with him as if they were equals even before they were. Not cowering in the face of elven royalty like so many humans did, instead approaching him high on his elk and speaking words of humble but strong gratitude. Later on when the dreamer gave advice, prodded him in certain directions, he'd go willingly, trustingly, almost too much sometimes, but going all the same. If the dreamer were a crueler person, ah, it is not worth thinking of. If he were crueler, but he is not, despite what some might say.
Here he could speak his mind. He could share freely what elsewhere would need to be kept hidden. Anger didn't need to be a defense. Yes there would be chastising to try and teach the man when tack is and isn't required, but anger? No, anger was not needed here. As much as possible, he wanted someone to talk to.
Chapter 5: A Confusing Explanation
"But it was, wasn't it. No thought for what is said until after it's already too late to take back." Now Thranduil's tone was that which warned an equally important and obscure piece of information was coming. One Bard had heard many times when the two of them had been alone together. As he had thought, the elf continued. "Do you really think that will be a good aspect to have when speaking with rulers? Will it gain you anything?"
Bard frowned, "It hasn't lost me anything yet"
"Yet." Thranduil drawled, leaning back on the rock and flicking a non-existent piece of dust from his clothes. "No, but then you have only ever had true dealings with Bilbo Baggins, the Iron Hills dwarf, and myself."
Slowly going back to work, Bard thought over what the other had said, then carefully worded his reply. "Why should that make any difference? I understand that Bilbo knows as little as I, but you and Dain are both long standing rulers."
"But I find you interesting." A head tilt and a small smirk that emphasized the elf's inhumanity.
"You mean it's different because you've been helping me" Bard realized,
Another head tilt, this time of agreement. The man opened his mouth to question further, and then he was staring up at the stone roof of the room he had chosen within his family's permanent house.
Chapter 6: Interlude #2
Once the intruder was gone all of the dreamer's last pretenses fled. The glamour covering much of the left side of his body dissolved away, the cost to keep it up within this place too high. Glancing around through his one working eye, the dreamer stared at all that had changed. In order to keep from standing around and just staring like an elfling on their first outing, he had needed to ignore all the differences. But here, alone, he let all dignity go and just stared out at his dreamscape. So much had changed since the last time the dreamer slept. There was no life, not yet. Not like it had been so many years ago. Instead there was a promise. With the amount of time mortals wasted on sleeping the intruder would have so much time to help repair the dreamscape. His own sense of duty and aversion to leaving things unfinished was as good as a written agreement, even if he felt there was no time line.
The whole thing was incredibly conflicting, but the dreamer knew water could not return without his own input. Once dried up, water could only return from a huge burst of emotion, enough passion to shock the elf back into life, and water back into their dreams. Not something this dreamer could do on his own, or something that would likely happen anytime in the future.
He would not help, but stay back and watch. See what became of this unspoken promise.
Chapter 7: It Isn't Hard To Be Better Than A Dwarf
Thranduil was not there the next night, nor the night after that. Tilda finally decided on a room within the house Bard’s family had chosen fro their permanent residence, Bain was promoted to one of the chief list takers, marking down what they had and what they needed. Sending out letters and receiving them, discussing new policies and laws took most of Bards time. Even when speaking to the real elven king, the presence of him in the dream slipped from Bard’s mind.
Until the third night when he was there again.
“Gideon had no elvish ancestors” The sudden voice cut through the calming fog in Bard’s mind and he fumbled, leaving a gouge through the two rocks he’d been smoothing together as he caught himself before falling
Taking a deep breath, Bard rested his forehead against the rock for a few moments before leaning back and safely climbing down the wall. He’d only been there a couple of hours, at first just sitting, then hauling rocks up the wall he was building, smoothing them together and letting them return to their unyielding state. How exactly it worked, again, he had no idea. It was a dream though, they were supposed to be that way. Things that didn’t make sense at all in real life made perfect sense in the dream. Here for some reason he just understood that and accepted it with little comment.
Throwing the rocks to the ground to break apart the earth had left Bard weary, but this was the first time he really felt worn. His muscles ached, demanding that he sit down and take a break. Additional to this work Bard had been doing more manual jobs that day. All in all he was tired, so he really didn’t know what had possessed him to try and start working.
Upon reaching the ground Bard turned to look at Thranduil, taking in the amused lit to his lips at the man’s stumble.
“Additionally, I would know if an elf had had a dalliance with any of your more immediate ancestors.” The elf king continued, walking up to where Bard had stopped and standing directly in front of him, unconsciously intimidating in his larger size.
The man frowned, “I have no elvish blood”
“You are tired” The other inclined his head, changing the subject again. Not that they were already on a topic, the elf had instead just appeared much like last time. “You’ve been working all day and coming here to work more. As a mortal you need rest at some point else you will wear yourself out.”
Just nodding in response didn’t seem to satisfy the other. “I was fine up until now-“
A huff from the king broke through the excuse, and Bard stopped, “What?”
“You were not fine until now. Us elves can go for long times without rest. You may not. Sit, before you collapse.” The elf turned quickly and strode over to the rock he had sat upon the time before, easily scaling it.
Too tired to argue the man followed, stopping at the bottom of the rock and looking up at the king, backlit by morning sun. “I can’t get up there you realize. Us mortals are quite attached to the ground.”
He had the feeling that Thranduil would be rolling his eyes if it weren’t so undignified. Instead the elf let out a soundless sigh that Bard could practically hear the resignation in. In a move that took away all credence he had gained from not rolling his eyes, the elf king scouted forward like one of Bard’s children, holding out a hand to the man. When his tired mind figured out the purpose of the gesture he froze, staring up at the king with wide eyes. Was Thranduil intending on pulling him up there? The elf was so slight, Bard would be far too heavy!
“I am an ancient being who has fought in many battles, young bowman. Do not think me incapable of lifting one human such a short distance.”
Bard blushed that his thoughts were written so clearly upon his face. Stepping forward, he planted a foot on a jagged edge of the rock and reached up to Thranduil, grasping the elf’s hand. With a shock he realized that it was the first time he’d ever purpousfully touched the elf. Not the first time he’d ever touched any elf, that had been done during the aftermath of the battle when searching for wounded, but this one in particular. He didn’t believe the tales that said he was made of ice, but he hadn’t thought that Thranduil would burn so.
True to his word Thranduil easily pulled Bard up to the top of the rock, clasping a hand on his shoulder to help him up. And then he was sitting next to the elven king. Surprisingly they sat in silence, rather than the questioning Bard had subconsciously expected. It was awkward at best. He wasn’t the type to sit with a king, with anyone in silence except himself. Not since his late wife.
Finally he gave in, shifting as he inquired, “What do you think should be done next?”
The other sat for a moment, scanning the place before returning, “Where do you intend to get the water?”
And there he had Bard stumped. Sure, Bard had known that eventually he would need to figure that out, but he had planned on finishing the rest first. Reiterating this thought out loud, he looked at the elf curiously.
“So have no ideas” The other pressed
Bard shook his head with a huff. “Other than cutting my arms and hoping this place turns my blood into water, no, I have no ideas. Why, do you?”
Thranduil’s reaction however was not what he had expected. The elf’s head whipped around to stare at the man, shock and something else alighting in his eyes.
“What? I don’t think it would actually come to that.” He paused, “You know something, don’t you?”
Thranduil inclined his head in something that wasn’t a nod, offering no comment. The man sighed, accepting that he wouldn’t get any answer from the figment of the tight lipped king. Instead he turned back around and proceeded to stare out over the basin. It had changed quite a bit since he’d first arrived, and he was rather proud of the work done. Things had also changed quite a bit in reality of course, his own work in it just wasn’t so, visible. This was not to say he wasn’t proud of the townsfolk. They had done so much, banded together and worked together to rebuild their lives. There had been the odd argument that was to be expected with feelings so high, but nothing that couldn’t be smoothed over.
The dirt, crushed up reeds, partial new wall, everything looked right, like a lake. An enclosed dried up lake, perhaps more of a pond. He hadn’t thought about that when he was working on it, but he supposed it had been instinctual to make it something that was familiar. Bard had never actually seen the sea that he thought it used to resemble; only ever heard of it. Now though it better resembled the water surrounding his home. It wasn’t the nicest of homes, but it was all he had know throughout his life, and all his children had known too. Would have known had it not been for the dragon burning Laketown. Now they would be able to see so much more, many things Bard would never be able to. His children would have many opportunities he hadn’t, and perhaps they would even go to the sea.
Tilda had always been interested in helping people, much like Bard before he became so calloused with life and the Master. Currently she was still finding joy in making and patching up clothes for people to survive the winter. Bard really didn’t know how long that would keep her attention, she tended to switch attentions every few months. She meant well though, that never changed no matter what she did, whether it was sewing, healing, fishing, or helping shop owners organize. She was merely too excitable for anything to keep her attention for a really long period of time.
Bain would do well as the next king of Dale, though he loved numbers and working with accountants more. Sigrid though, Bard would not be surprised if Sigrid decided to go to the sea. She’d always been a free spirit, held down by a sense of duty to her family. Bard had never wanted to stifle that spirit, but the reality of Laketown hadn’t let it grow. Now she could leave and go anywhere. Well, within reason.
Reason and food, Bard smirked slightly, flattening out his expression as he glanced at the king beside him.
Sigrid loved food. Eating it, yes, but making it especially. Whenever spice merchants came through Laketown she was one of the first to go and speak to them, even if she had no money to spend. Cooking had been a favorite of hers. Even back when her mother was alive and Sigrid was tiny she’d waddle around whenever her mother was cooking, a huge grin on her face and flour covering her hands and everything she touched. Bard on the other hand was terrible at cooking, making a mess more like she had as a child than actually helping. The smirk faded sadly. Bard wasn’t sure if those memories were the reason Sigrid had grown up loving cooking so much, but he wouldn’t be surprised.
“Where has Legolas gone? I haven’t seen him since the end of the battle, are the two of you alright?” Bard finally broke the silence when it got too much and he was rambling in his own head.
The last Bard had seen of Legolas was out of the corner of his eye, defying his king’s orders. Thranduil looked angry for a moment at the familiarity of the question, but then he seemed to slump. Not visible, no. Thranduil was far too dignified for that. But there was a change in the air around him, a lowering of the elf’s eyes that made him seem not quite as high and mighty as he was before.
The elfking sighed, “He’s decided to go west, as he no longer feels he belongs in my woods. “
“My condolences.” The man said, looking away. He couldn’t imagine the pain to be so separated from your child that they felt they didn’t belong with you any longer.
Thranduil shook his head, smiling wryly “I always knew Legolas was a wild one. He has always wanted to go and see the world. He’s traveled before, of course, but I feel that this time is different.” There was worry in his voice, “Never this far.”
“Where to the west does he want to go?”
The other sighed. “I do not know where he will end up. I’ve told him of a man I know, living among the rangers, but I do not know what path he will end up taking. That will be his own.”
Bard nodded, slightly surprised at the spoken aloud description he had just been thinking about regarding his own daughter. “Sigrid’s like that too. We’ve lived in Laketown our whole lives, but I always knew she was meant for more.”
Thranduil cocked his head to the side, “Yes, she always has many questions for me and my elves regarding places we’ve been and the food we ate there. Not to mention our own food, she has so many questions. Your youngest, Tilda, I believe, is another who’s quite fond of speaking and explaining things. I learned more about weaving baskets from her than I’ve ever learned in my life before. You’ve very knowledgeable children ”
Smiling fondly at the reminder of Tilda’s endless curiosity, Bard shifted in his seat, relaxing a little more onto the stone. While it was true she was curious about everything and asked the most indiscriminate of questions, she tended to jump from topic to topic too quickly to really understand everything. The things she was really interested in however she could stay focused on for months. Laketown’s old weaver—the only one they had, dead now in the battle—had learned that well when Tilda visited her every day for a month and a half, wanting to know everything about basket and bowl weaving.
“I hope they aren’t bothering you” Bard spoke on that last thought, turning to Thranduil with a raised eyebrow
But the other shook his head. “My elves and I don’t have the chance to see many children, so any are welcome. Yours in particular are a joy to be around.”
Bard stopped, taken aback and thinking it over. He had never really thought about immortal beings and children. But then again he supposed they wouldn’t be able to have many lest they overpopulate, something that those in Mirkwood at least definitely weren’t. He also hadn’t known Thranduil spent enough time around his own children to think that they were a joy.
“Thank you” He said quietly, watching the elf out of the corner of his eye.
Thranduil smiled softly for a couple moments before he became serious again, catching Bard’s eye and nonverbally demanding his full attention.
“You are far too uncomfortable around those you see as your betters” He chastised, and instantly Bard tensed up again, recalling that he was sitting next to King Thranduil, and not just any elf. His reaction however caused King Thranduil to sigh, shaking his head. “I did not say that to have you on your guard again, but exactly the opposite. Whether you like it or not, you are a king now Bard. You need to learn to act like one in the presence of your equals, whether they’re elves or human. The more on edge you are, the more mistakes you will make.”
Wincing at the truth in that statement, Bard forced himself to relax again, trying to find that communal mindset he had had just moments before when they were talking about their children. When King Thranduil was just Thranduil.
“I notice you didn’t mention dwarves” He joked, just slightly more tentatively than before.
Thranduil smirked at this, inclining his head. “I have never met a dwarf who was my equal. I therefore see no reason to give such illusions to you.”
Bard grinned casually, “I’m flattered that you see me in a higher light than dwarves”
“Of course,” Thranduil replied pompously, “Though don’t think that means anything. It isn’t hard to be better than a dwarf.”
Shaking his head, Bard chuckled. He personally didn’t have much against dwarves, but not much for them either. They were a suspicious lot and hard to deal with in meetings. Still, he had none of the hatred that Thranduil carried, though he was curious to find out where that came from.
Today however—or tonight, as he reminded himself that he was asleep—was not the time to ask. Besides, this Thranduil wasn’t real. He kept forgetting that. Shaking his head, Bard leaned back on his arms, content to talk with Thranduil for the rest of the night, even if none of it was real.
Despite this, the rest of the dream that night was spent in silence, comfortable and calm.
Chapter 8: A Timelapse and Scars
The next months leading up and past the six-month anniversary of Smaug’s death continued in much the same pattern. At first King Thranduil only showed up every few nights, then more and more as time went on, after the anniversary and celebration centered in Dale turning up every night. The differences between Thranduil and King Thranduil were stark; King Thranduil cold and distant though helpful and perhaps concerned, or a least slightly curious about Bard and family in his letters, and Thranduil open and relaxed in the dreams, speaking to Bard on many topics.
And so the sameness fell into routine. The days were filled with work, diplomatic and laborious, time spent with his children, time spent cleaning and gathering supplies, and in the nights he would see Thranduil. Most of the time they would just sit and talk or wander around the dream, elsewise Bard would either finish what he had been doing previously or find the next part of the dream to be fixed. Thranduil on the other hand would appear part way through the sit or stand back and watch, the two of them either engaged in conversation or content to exist in silence. The dream welcomed changes same as it had when Thranduil wasn’t there, so Bard had no problems. He grew to enjoy the others presence, even looking forward to it by the time Thranduil turned up nightly.
One thing that was especially amusing about having Thranduil there happened on the days in which Bard would do something new. Whenever the elf saw something being fixed for the first time he would get this wide eyed look on his face, like Sigrid when a made up recipe worked perfectly, or Bain when all the numbers added up and he finished a complicated problem. It was like the dream was doing something incredible, but more than that like Bard was doing something incredible. It was amusing and nice to see on the elf kings face, even just a figment of him.
The sense of accomplishment Bard got however was less about that though, and more about the look he received at the end of a repair, where whenever Thranduil thought Bard wasn’t looking he appeared so in awe of all that had happened around him. Almost content. While Bard was used to it, evidently Thranduil hadn’t gotten the hang of human dreaming. Or, at least, Bard’s imagined Thranduil didn’t.
From the basin they moved onto the seaside rocky beach, more than ten months later. More time had been flitted away rearranging the dirt and rock walls to Thranduil’s exact specifications. Things that slowed down Bard’s progress, but were entertaining overall. Sometimes they would just talk for weeks on end and gradually their conversations changed from small talk with the odd serious topic to deep conversations that often had to be put on hold for waking hours, only to start up again the next night.
They spoke of their children, of their lives, of love lost and found. Of dreams and desires, small pleasures and guilty ones. They learned each other, and Bard began to feel closer to Thranduil than he felt to anyone else, their relationship growing stronger night by night.
One night before moving onto the beach, during the time where Bard and Thranduil would sit in stillness and conversation, Bard finally figured out why the elf held himself so gingerly on his left side.
Bard had been drawing meaningless shapes on the top layer of the hard packed hir when he because aware of Thranduil in a burst of ozone. When he turned to look at the other, he hadn’t at all expected what he saw. The elven king looked haggard. Or as much as an elf could look such. Concerned, Bard left the rocks where they were, walking over to Thranduil.
"Are you-" he broke off with a gasp as he saw the entirety of the elf's face.
One half was flawless, but the other... The other was one big scar, creeping down from his left hairline, across his eye and just touching the side of his mouth before running down the side of his neck and under his collar. Bard could see tendons and veins, the wound looking obviously painful and newly burnt. With a start, he realized that the king was blind in his left eye.
"What happened?" He demanded, ignoring all propriety to step forward and grasp Thranduil's face in his hands, careful to avoid the wound as he tilted his face to better see the ailment. "Does it hurt? Of course it does. Is there anything I can do?"
The elf seemed frozen, his white eye stating listlessly out at Bard and what was visible of his expression shock. But then the momentary shock wore off and he looked at Bard fully, a blank mask in place.
"It only aches now. There is nothing that be done with it"
"Now? When, how did this happen?" Bard asked, unconsciously running his thumb over the unmarred skin next to the burn.
"Many, many years ago" the elf replied quietly, closing his eyes and then adding. "The dwarves of Erebor are not the only ones to know dragon fire."
The memory of fear and dragon fire over Laketown almost paralyzed Bard in its sudden intensity. He only came back to himself when Thranduil lightly rested his hand over Bard's where the man still held him. The intimacy of the moment was unexpected, and though not unwelcome it made him flounder. Even further when he tried to move his hands back and the elf held on.
Trying to get his footing back, he asked, "Why can I see it now and not before?"
The elf king sighed, releasing Bard and taking a step back. "Because I am tired, and it is harder to keep up the illusion here."
"Then why do you have the illusion usually?"
Cocking his head to the side, Thranduil narrowed his eyes. "Is does not bother you?"
The man frowned. "Why would it? It shows you've survived a dragon. You won."
A humorless chuckled preceded his answer as he turned away. "It is ugly, terrible to look at"
As if he needed any more reason to believe elves were vain. Thranduil kept up an illusion all the time so that others couldn't see his scar? Actually, Bard supposed see why he'd want to do that as king, but surely with time the reactions would die down. Or not, as elves were immortal. It would only add fuel to the rumors of the elven kings indifference and turn it to cruelty.
Wincing at the poor choice of wording, Bard spoke to draw his mind away. “It’s not ugly at all. It only makes you look more beautiful, because you were burned but are still alive. You survived to be here now, alive with me.”
And that had not been what Bard had meant to say. Not at all.
But it seemed have been something right, as Thranduil’s lips turned softly up at the corners. “Yes” He agreed. “I’m still alive”
It appeared that no more speaking was needed after that, as Thranduil shook himself and changed the topic, going on about some new spiders nest that had popped up in the Greenwood, and how he was setting up a team of elves to take them down from the source. He’d been putting it off for far too long, he said in irritation. Now however was a good time to get rid of it.
Bard grinned, accepting the conversation change and sitting down on a nearby rock, letting the elven king choose to sit beside him, still speaking. When Thranduil sat, Bard was on his left side. In the dreams, the illusion never went back up.
There wasn’t so much to do on the beach luckily, as Bard was slightly wary of the place. It was, strange, he supposed, was the best word to describe it. If one stared straight down at their feet and then up to the horizon line, then past to the zenith, they could almost get vertigo from the change. Rocks, pebbly and dark, growing smaller as they grew further away from the shore, smaller until they became sand not too long of a ways out. The sand, grey in the current afternoon sun, faded out into black at some unknown edge, only the distant specs of stars showing the difference between sand and sky. Further up and the stars—many at first—became sparser, turning into the sky of midmorning, late afternoon, or whatever time the dream was showing. Higher up and the sky looked normal almost, as if Bard could look down and find himself back in Laketown or Dale, watching the sky to try and guess the time as he went about his day.
But there were still things to do, rests to be taken, and another two months passed before they moved to the strip of prairie Bard had walked when working on the basin. It was there he was able to look more at the dead forest, but Thranduil pried his attention away every time it got too focused.
There was much to be done in the prairie. The drought had killed all of the plants, turning the ground to hard packed soil. Unlike with the basin, it wasn’t so easy to get the soil broken up, instead many nights needing to be devoted to working through it.
And still throughout the work Bard and Thranduil spoke even more. Subjects such as the uncertainties involved in ruling, varied relationships with children, and the vulnerabilities of immortality cropping up more and more frequently. Bard learned how much Thranduil loved his children but no longer knew how to speak with them since their mothers passing. How two of them had left Mirkwood—though Thranduil always called it Greenwood—altogether, moving to live among other elves Thranduil did not know. When Legolas left after the battle Thranduil had been crushed, far more than he had let on in their first conversation around children. But time allowed those words out in the space of the dream, Bard listening and offering a comforting shoulder to lean on whenever it was needed. The amount of death Thranduil had seen was stunning, and Bard realized that he had never really considered the ramifications of being immortal. Of living on while all others died around you.
In return Bard spoke of cold nights in Laketown, of wanting to do best by his children but finding it so hard in a town where the Master hated him. Where the only job he could get where he had even a measure of freedom was ferrying barrels from the elven kingdom, and even then the Master often stuck his unwelcome fingers into Bard’s business. Of feeling like he was failing his children, even now that doors were opened for them, by simply not knowing what was and was not acceptable. What was concern and when did it become smothering? Bard shared his fears as a king, and Thranduil was a huge help in allaying them.
As the dreams progressed and Bard and Thranduil became better friends, Bard had to remind himself more and more that this was not real. That the Thranduil of his mind was exactly that, a made up figment with the appearance and voice of the elven king, not the ruler of Mirkwood—Greenwood, Thranduil insisted—himself. But time also progressed, and soon it no longer mattered that the elven king was not real. The man would go to work for the day, would sit through meetings, write delegations, appear among the people, and do personal business, and then at night he would go and speak with the elf who was something more than his best friend.
Bard would always arrive first, Thranduil arriving there randomly. The first time after he started visiting every night that Thranduil hadn’t shown up at all Bard had nearly had a heart attack, convinced that he had lost his newfound friend. The elf was back the next night however, with no mention of the time spent away. Each time this would happen Bard would worry, working through the night without a break in his drive to focus his mind elsewhere. Every time the elf showed up again, whether it was the night after, or the one even after that, Thranduil would sit Bard down next to him and the two would rest in silence, enjoying the comfort of closeness and brushing physical contact. Thranduil never spoke of the times he wasn’t there, and so Bard followed his lead, unwilling to jeopardize anything between them.
Until the time he was there before Bard. It was a normal night, only set apart because Bard had finished all he wished to do on the prairie the night before and was going to start on the dead forest the next. He would’ve been finished earlier, but Thranduil had convinced him to dig something of a trench between the prairie and the forest, dirt for a meter to either side of it. When Bard figured out how to get water into the dream—though he was still sure Thranduil knew—the trench would be filled and an easy way to divert the flow of liquid from one side of the dream island to the other. He wasn’t exactly sure how it’d work, but trusted Thranduil enough to do it.
Bard hadn’t been paying too much attention to what would happen in his dream when he went to sleep that night. It was two days before the one and a half year anniversary of Smaug’s death, and while not as important as the year anniversary, still a big one. The elves would be coming from Mirkwood and dwarves from Erebor, all meeting in more neutral Dale to discus the trade and diplomatic agreements between the three kingdoms.
That very morning a shipment of supplies for the celebration had come in from a nearby trading outpost that had been set up, and somehow someone had messed up somewhere—Bard still didn’t understand what had actually happened—and he had needed to be present to calm down the yelling and fussing merchants. After that he had been swept up by his tailor—his tailor, a personal tailor—to try on new ceremonial clothes. Then Tilda—who was currently apprenticing under said tailor—had wanted his attention. Always happy to spend time with any of his children, Bard had quickly lost the rest of the day that way, eventually having to send them both to bed when he looked out the window and noticed how dark it had become.
So when Bard went to sleep he was not expecting to see the elf already there. In, fact, he wasn’t expecting much of anything to be honest, thinking about perhaps taking the night off to sit and rest, exchange a couple stories with Thranduil.
Instead, when he opened his eyes he was faced with the elfking’s back, he friend staring out at the dead forest, and the orange glow that lit it from within.
Chapter 9: Interlude #3
Now that the visitor’s work on the rest of the dreamscape was done, the dreamer knew that the next place he would want to go was the forest. The dead forest that meant so much to the dreamer, so much more than any could know. And the dreamer would let him, as he had let him change and build the rest of the dreamscape. Without protest, without anger. The dreamer had had a lot of time to reflect on the change that would need to come to the forest, to pen letters to his children, halting, stilted, and helped by some conversations with the visitor about his own kids. He had even spoken to the visitor himself, under the guise of other topics of course.
Yet still, it came back to this one place. The place his late wife had grown her plants, sinking their roots deep within the ground, curling vines around the dreamer’s trees, lichen creeping up the walls. It was all dead, many years dead now, hardly enough life left in the fragile plants to keep them together from the brush of air of the dreamer walking past. Time had shown that he had better ways of remembering her. Better than just this, the dead remains of a past he once had. This clutter of broken memories was taking up space where new life should be growing.
The worst thing about it really, the thing that most displeased the dreamer, was exactly how he would have to clear away the dead growth.
Because a clearing would need to happen in order to give things space to grow again when the water finally returned—and it would return, the dreamer knew this now. And the only way the dreamer knew to do such a cleansing was fire. Fire that sometimes came into Greenwood and burnt down some trees to make way for new growth. Clean and green once again before they were exposed to the evil that had seeped into the dreamer’s kingdom.
When the trees were as dead as these were, as dried up, that was the only thing that could be done. The plants would not rot to nurture what came next, even water would only bring mold. Nothing remained of the life they once had. As it was, little remained of the memories they once held. When the forest was full of life, then it was full of memories. Now it was only the reminder of her death.
Accepting this, the dreamer bowed his head, prepared to give his last farewell to the forest. Perhaps her plants would grow again, from fallen seeds or hidden crevasses. He wouldn’t know until he allowed life to come back. Everyone who went into an elf’s dreamscape left their mark, and so would she. Always be with him, just not in this way.
With a heavy heart he moved forward, walking through the trees toward the center. The dreamer had planned to use this time to say goodbye, but as the plants crumbled from his delicate brushing, he realized he already had. Years had been spent saying goodbye. There were no more words to be spoken.
Reaching the center he crouched down, pulling out the thin one-sided blade he always kept on his person. A little searching procured an acceptable rock, and it was easy to gather up a small pile of flammable refuse. A few seconds and the dreamer had sparked a fire, quickly standing up and taking a step back. The wounds on his cheek throbbed in time with the flickering blaze, and he turned away, heading back out of the forest. There was neither wind nor water to put the fire out. Now it would burn.
The dreamer was almost running by the time he made it out of the forest, the fire having spread quickly and though not yet dangerous to him, still provoking memories of a less controlled fire that he did not want to relive. His face and side where the dragon fire had burned him stung like they were days old instead of years. But as the dreamer finally exited the steadily burning forest he felt only relief. There was no changing what had been done now. Action had been taken, and there was nothing now that could stop it.
Standing in front of the growing blaze, the dreamer watched.
Chapter 10: A Joyful Night and A Mournful Morning
Automatically Bard jumped forward only to be stopped short by a hand on his chest.
“What are you doing?” Bard demanded in confusion “We have to put out the fire before it spreads any further!”
But the elf king shook his head. “I started it.”
That more than anything stopped Bard from pushing forward regardless of Thranduil’s wishes. The man stared at his companion, beyond confused. Thranuil hated fire. He had lost so much to it, even now wearing the scars from the dragon fire on his face, proving him blind in one eye and permanently disabled. Why would he set fire to this place?
As Thranduil oft did, he seemed to read Bard’s mind, answering this question before it was spoken aloud. “In the woods fire is a cleansing thing, not only a cause of destruction. Forest fires are a natural reality. They’ve been around since even before the elves, sparking from lightning or drought.”
“But how can they be a good thing?” The man protested, “How are you so calm about this?”
“Dragon fire is unnatural. Back when dragons were peaceful creatures who hoarded and protect lands and their inhabitants instead of metal, their fire was cleansing. Now,” Thranduil said, one hand brushing the ruined side of his face “It only disfigures.”
Bard stopped, staring at the cleansing fire
“In order for new growth, the fire must first burn away the dead and old plants.” Thranduil said softly in the tone of a lecture. “The seeds will fall and spread, and there will be room for the sun to reach the ground, nurturing and growing the fallen seeds.
The words did not turn into a lecture however, the elf trailing off and moving on. “In Greenwood we have not had a fire for many years. It is a, mixed thing, when one lives in and around so many trees. To see them burning down around you, and know that the fire will bring life, but also the possibility of death”
Still not fully understanding, the man just stared at Thranduil, hoping for more explanations as he looked between the other and the fire.
Thranduil sighed. “I wish it were not so, but I almost hope that it is a contributor to the darkness that has fallen over the Greenwood. Otherwise the blame would be all my own.”
“What, why would the blame be on you? You have no part in the darkness” Bard protested, grateful that at least this he could understand and deny.
“I faded Bard. Not all the way, and not anymore, but I’m still not completely here.” Thranduil admitted, closing his eyes.
The other nodded, finally turning to face him. Thranduil looked almost guilty at the admission, as if each word had to be dragged out of him. “You once asked me if it was true that elves died after the one they love does.” A pause. “While that isn’t exactly true, we do fade if we’ve lost all purpose in the world, eventually ending in death. When my wife, died, I fell into a state of depression and began fading. By the time I realized that I was still needed in this world, for my children and kingdom, I had already lost so much. Too much to heal.
“I mourned for many years, lost in the grief that plagued me day and night. By the time I opened my eyes again, Greenwood had become Mirkwood and my children had left me.” The elf shut his eyes tightly, clenching his jaw. “I do not blame them for leaving, I would not have wished them to stay. Even with what they know of me, I do not know how to communicate with them. I don’t know if they know how much I love them.”
The scattered worries and fears that Thranduil was voicing almost made Bard’s head spin, but he understood how worries could be, always bouncing around until the mind was full of everything that had gone wrong.
Momentarily ignoring the blaze right next to them, Bard reached out, tilting Thranduil’s face up and forcing the other to meet his eyes.
“Thranduil, this is not your fault. You didn’t bring the darkness, you aren’t the reason Greenwood is sick.” Bard didn’t know much about what had happened to what had used to be Greenwood, but he this at least was true. “And just from hearing you speak of your children I now how much you love them. I’m positive they know as well.”
From the look on the elf king’s face Bard could tell the other didn’t believe him, but Thranduil smiled softly, pulling away and drawing their combined attention back to the burning forest. Not knowing what else to say, the man allowed him his silence. But it was only a moment or two that they stood in stillness, Bard not knowing what to do and Thranduil lost in his own thoughts. Or at least Bard assumed so when the elf king spoke, his words soft.
“This was my wife’s forest.” He said, gazing out over the burning blaze, his head angled to the left so that he could better see it “She loved it the most out of both her and my own dr-” He cut himself off, pressing his eyes shut for a second before continuing. “She just loved it so much. The trees are mine, but the vines, the sounds, they were hers. All the mosses and many of the flowers. These are my memories of her. Were, I suppose now.
“I’ve thought about it a lot, actually,” The elf continued, his words conversational, his subtle body language the only thing displaying how anyone else would be in tears. “How much I had been clinging to something that was already gone. This forest, this place has been dead for many years, and I have been grasping at the memory of when it had life. So used to my isolation that I’ve become complacent in it. But no more. She would not want this.”
Bard nodded, voicing his agreement. That had been something he had had to tell himself many times after his own wife had died. That she wouldn’t want him to wallow in grief, but to continue living life to it’s fullest.
“I suspect I have long since accepted her death, just grown too comfortable in isolation to do anything about it” Thranduil ended the tirade, throwing a small half smile Bard’s way.
“Had my children not still been of the age to need me I suspect I would’ve done the same thing. It was hard moving on, but unfortunately the way it has to be” Bard agreed, smiling sadly back. His smile grew a little happier as he went on, “I lived for my kids, and eventually started to live for myself. It took a long time, in mortal standards at least, but I managed.” He paused, looking away as he took a deep breath and added, “Living for another person after her wasn’t something I could imagine doing for a very long time.”
“That’s in past tense” The elf commented.
Bard could feel his gaze on the side of his face but refused to look, his cheeks heating up. “Yes, it is.”
“Bard…” Thranduil trailed off, and this time the man turned to look at him almost against his will.
There was something shining in the elf’s clear eye that he couldn’t read. It wasn’t an unfamiliar look, having appeared more and more over the past montha, but now Bard was beginning to think he knew what it was.
For a moment they stood there, and it felt like they were on the edge of a precipice. Everything seemed to be waiting, even the sounds of the fire crackling and the jumping orange glow it let off fading into the background. Nothing felt more important than staring at Bard’s elf, scared and the most beautiful person he’d ever seen. Absolutely perfect.
And then Thranduil was kissing him, proving that the previous moment hadn’t been perfect, and that, oh, that this one was. Bard barely noticed the elf’s hands coming up to rest of the back of his neck, as well as one of his own hands running over the ruined side of Thranduil’s face, his touch light and gentle against the missing skin.
The elf let out an almost pained noise at that, and it was only his initial reassurances that he could only feel pressure that stopped Bard from immediately removing his hand. Instead he ran one finger under the other’s sightless eye, over his missing skin and then into his hair, gripping it as Thranduil deepened the kiss with a sweep of his tongue over Bard’s lips.
Opening his mouth to let the elf in, Bard couldn’t stop a moan at the taste of the other. Thranduil tasted like something sharp, something cold and enticing that had Bard pressing his own tongue into the others mouth greedily as if he could search it out by touch alone. The give and take battle of the kiss made Bard’s knees weak and he had to break it to breath, grinning foolishly and resting his forehead against his elfs.
The other was mirroring the grin on the man’s face, and let out a small huff of happiness. A sort of realization seemed to be growing on Thranduil’s face, happy and disbelieving, more emotion than Bard had ever seen displayed so clearly on the elf before. Unable to resist, and seeing no reason to do so, Bard leaned in for another quick kiss, then another that became far longer.
When he felt something drop onto his head he ignored it at first, until there was another, and another, and something trickling down the side of his face. Pulling back in confusion, Bard looked upwards and received a fat raindrop in his eye for his troubles.
“Wha-?” He gasped, staring at the sky in awe. Where before it had been relatively cloudless, now the sky was filled with plump clouds, heavy and dark with rain.
More drops fell around them, and within moments Bard was soaking wet, staring up into the downpour. The sound of hissing grew in a wave and he turned to watch the forest, steam pouring from the flaming trees as they were put out. Laughter spilled from beside him and Bard looked back to Thranduil, almost gaping as he took in the joy of the elven king.
He had seen the elf laugh before, seen happiness on his face and in his voice. But this, this was so much more. Thranduil was laughing openly, his face shining in joy as he stared at Bard. His hair was soaking, sticking to the sides of his face and making him look more disheveled than the man had ever seen him before.
Staring at the elf now, Bard couldn’t believe he’d ever mistaken Thranduil for being cold and unfeeling. His elf felt everything, just so rarely let it show. Now, here in this place he felt safe enough to let his emotions be uninhibited. Sadness for the burning fire and now joy at the rain.
Then Bard was being pulled back to the elf’s mouth and they were kissing again, rain pouring down around them and the muted fire hissing and spitting. It was a delightful contrast, the crisp taste of the elf as he explored his mouth and the smell of ash and wet smoke from the fire as it died. Thranduil pulled away to speak, and someone knocked harshly on the door.
Bard jerked to wakefulness, mentally cursing at the bad timing as the last wisps of the dream slipped away. The feel of the elf’s lips on his however lingered, the taste wonderful and natural despite its unexpectedness. In a sort of daze Bard got up, calling out and acknowledgement to whichever of his children had woken him up. The sound of running feet faded off down the hall as the child left, their work at waking Bard up done.
Grabbing clothes, Bard hastily threw things on, not caring to actually pick out anything too extravagant. The preparations for tomorrow’s arrival of elves and dwarves would need to be finished today. Most everything was already done, but there were always those last minute arrangements and mishaps. Honestly though Bard didn’t know how he’d focus on anything with the clear memory of Thranduil’s kiss on his mind and tongue.
The man smiled, especially excited for the coming of the elves. There was finally a special place for Thranduil’s elk in their stables, as the creature was far too big to fit in with the rest of the horses. The elf king had mentioned the discrepancy off hand a night after the last time he visited Dale, and Bard, wanting to do something special for the other, had had an extra wing added to the stable.
Halfway into his overcoat Bard froze, sudden realization now tasting like ash in his mouth. The elf that would come, would use those stables, would not be his elf. There were no scares on his face, no small smile playing on his lips that was solely for Bard. This elf was as distant and cold as the stars in the dream, with a tendency to be harsh even when he helped. It was not Thranduil who would come. Not Bard’s Thranduil, anyway. Instead it would be the uncaring King of Mirkwood who would appear.
One who had never looked twice at Bard in a romantic or even friendly light. One who had no scares on his face, only highlighting his beauty with the tale they told instead of destroying it. All the amusing and personal stories Bard knew about the elf were just tales, stories his own mind had made up. All the things he himself had shared to no one but Thranduil hadn’t been told at all. Sure, Bard had originally been quite happy to have a sounding and complaining board for all the aspects of being a new king and on his own life, but at some point he had come to truly appreciate the fact that there was someone else who knew so much about him and yet didn’t judge him for it.
And now there was so much more reason to wish that his Thranduil was the one who was real. The relationship that they had been cultivating had grown, developing further and further until the night before gave it a definite romantic tone. How much further could it have grown had Thranduil been real.
Finishing putting on his clothes, Bard took a deep breath, resigning himself to continuing the day in unhappiness. There was simply nothing he could do. The lack of scars and that fond smile he had whenever the other saw Bard would have to be enough for the man to differentiate between the two Thranduil’s. The one he loved, first as a friend, and now perhaps more, did not exist.
“Are you up da?”
Bard looked at the door to find Sigrid standing with a curious look on her face. “You seem, sad”
Inwardly Bard cursed. If his daughter could tell that from what he assumed to be only a few moments of idle observation, how was he going to hold up around others. Perhaps he’d be better at hiding it by the time he had to see Thranduil, King Thranduil the next day. For now he just needed to get through today. He’d known King Thranduil was coming for weeks. This remembrance that Thranduil wasn’t real shouldn’t rock Bard so. He should be able to deal with this.
“I’m fine Sigrid” He answered, testing out a smile. “I just had a realization that will hopefully be fixed before it becomes a problem.”
She nodded, but after a moment inquired shrewdly, “Considering what’s happening tomorrow, is this about the elven king?”
Had he been holding anything it would’ve met the floor. “How-Why would it be about him? Much is happening tomorrow”
Was he really that transparent? But then how would she know the specific person? He didn’t think he spoke much to or about Thranduil outside of the dreams. There was nowhere to connect the two.
“Yes, much is” Thankfully Sigrid allowed him the deflection, changing the subject to getting Bard downstairs. While he was indeed thankful, he knew he must look really upset for her to grant him that concession. Not to mention he’d still no idea how she’d figured him out.
He followed her down and for a while they spoke of the coming day, though both of them avoided the topic of the elves. Bain was the next up, groggy as he joined them at the table for breakfast, and Tilda soon followed, practically bouncing into the kitchen. They added to the conversation, and soon the elves did come up, though still he thought he was safe.
That was until Tilda decided to pipe up, “Aren’t you excited to see Thranduil again da?”
Spitting out the mouthful of water he had just taken, Bard did a double take. “What? Why?”
“Well you always seem so happy after receiving a letter from Mirkwood”
He frowned, unaware he had been so transparent about his feelings. His feelings for someone who wasn’t real, he forcibly reminded himself.
“We wouldn’t mind, you know.” Sigrid said, “I like King Thranduil. He’s really interesting, and respectful, and he likes baking pie.”
There really hadn’t been enough surprises today apparently, and it was still only morning. “He talks to you? Enough that you know he likes pie?” Gaping was undignified, but Bard though he was justified in this.
“Oh yes, he stops by the kitchens sometimes. When he’s here I mean. And after the Battle of The Five Armies he stopped by to see if the supplies were being handled well. We baked a pie together” She smiled happily, tilting her head meaningfully. “He’s very nice”
Bain, who had been silent up until now, agreed, adding, “Sometimes when we get supplies from Mirkwood he comes. He’s quite fair, never trying to shortchange us. Plus, unlike the Master he doesn’t care much about money beyond what he needs. He’s really smart. And in his letters he’s really helpful, because not many of us know what we’re doing” He paused, squinting at his plate, “We also talk about life in general, though in a weirdly formal way.”
Bard stared at the table. He had had no idea King Thranduil had so much interaction with his children. But then again, the cynical part of his mind said, perhaps King Thranduil was just doing that because they were in places of influence. Instantly he berated himself for the thought. King Thranduil was not Bard’s, but the elf still wouldn’t use children like that.
More questions and comments would’ve been asked, but a knock on the front door heard by those in the kitchen forestalled any more speech by reminding Bard what time it was.
Summoning a smile, Bard bid his children goodbye and cleared his place, leaving to the sounds of them chattering about the coming celebration.
Though he had thought the day would drag on—and for bits it did—for the most part it flew by, tons of last minute preparations needing to be done. The last celebration had been a whole year past and had been larger than the one they had prepared for the next week, but any size town celebration was still lots of work. Not to mention the work needed to be done on the dwarves accommodations, as they had been unaware Dis, the sister of Thorin, would be coming as well and preparations had to be made. Bard was slightly confused as to why it hadn’t been assumed she would be coming, considering her presence at the past two Smaug anniversaries, but nevertheless, it was a mistake that had to bee fixed soon.
The dwarves and the elves with their rivalry had a sort of competition thing going on, each one trying to arrive at Dale before the other. They derived some sort of amusement from the power play, though Bard didn’t understand what. Surprisingly, considering the dwarves lived closer, the elves had managed to get there first for the past couple times, including the year celebration. So while it was a toss up as to which would arrive first, he for some reason guessed it would be the dwarves, and they would need a room prepared for Dis right away. Perhaps it was just wishful thinking.
For the first part of the celebration and during the meetings it would be impossible for Bard to avoid King Thranduil, but during the rest he could at least try and avoid the other. That might be hard considering how much time the two of them usually spent together at these celebrations, King Thranduil imparting upon Bard cold and extremely useful knowledge. It was always interesting speaking with the elven king, as the other was harsh, but also helpful and nice, just rather bad at it.
Bard shook his head, he was mixing up King Thranduil with Thranduil. Something he could not do in the quickly coming week.
And it really wouldn’t be all that bad. King Thranduil didn’t know that Bard had been dreaming about him every night or so for the past year and a half. If the man acted off, that would not be the other’s first conclusion. It would be weird if he acted too familiar, but then again, the king had always allowed a certain lack of decorum that Bard had seen him verbally eviscerate others for. So hopefully if he acted a little too familiar, Thranduil, King Thranduil, would accept it as just something an inexperienced king did.
It would all work out. The king would be there for a week, then he’d leave, and the man would go back to his life. Bard grimaced. His life of being in love with a figment of his imagination. How had it come to this? He certainty hadn’t expected this to happen whenever he entertained the thought of being with someone else. Then again it hadn’t really been seriously entertained. He could admire other people, of course, but actually being with them, that had appeared solely reserved for Thranduil.
Chapter 11: Spoken Promise
As he got ready for sleep that night however, another thought came to him. How would he deal with the fake Thranduil in his dreams? Bard knew he couldn’t go on like this. It was unhealthy to be so in love with something that was not real. He didn’t want to turn into the Master with his love of money or Thorin with the Arkenstone. It was his dream though, he should be able to get rid of the other. Actually, the dream island didn’t even need him anymore. The rain had fallen, the trees had burned, everything was on its way to recovery.
Sleep itself came before he could make a decision.
When he opened his eyes, Thranduil was already there, joy written across his scared face as he strode forward to greet the man.
“I can’t be here long because we’re traveling, but I wished to see you.” The elf murmured before kissing him. When Bard didn’t respond however, the elf pulled back, confusion changing to uncertainty.
“Bard? Is there something wrong?” He asked, watching him worriedly. “Are you- do you not want this?”
Bard shook his head and Thranduil instantly stepped back, grief painting his features for a moment before once again becoming a blank mask.
Hating the look on the face of the one he’d fallen in love with, the man rushed to speak. “It’s not that, or this, it’s just that this is unhealthy, I can’t be doing this. You aren’t real, and I can’t be in love with something in my mind lest I go mad.”
The mask broke and now Thranduil looked stricken, opening his mouth to speak as then pausing, his eyes going distant as if hearing something far away. The distant look quickly passed however, and the elf seemed to steel himself, clenching his jaw and pulling a knife from seemingly nowhere.
“What?” Bard gasped when the elf turned it on himself, taking an automatic step forward to halt him, only to have the other match him in moving away.
“Wait, just, wait a moment” Thranduil frowned tightly, bringing the blade up to the palm of his hand and with sweeping lines cutting down.
After the turmoil of the day this was truly too much, and Bard attempted once again to stop the other, succeeding only in driving him back further.
“Wait Bard, let me speak” The elf repeated, finally bringing down his knife. “This is real. This has always been real, since the very first time you appeared here, in my dreamscape. I didn’t tell you for many reasons, but you need to know. Everything that’s happened here is real. My feelings for you, and I hope your feelings for me.”
“No it’s not-“ Bard instantly began to deny, cutting himself off when Thranduil finally showed him his palm, the man’s own name morbidly cut into it. “What, why would you do that?”
“To prove it to you.” The elf said urgently, taking a step closer. “Tomorrow I’ll arrive in Dale, and this will still be on my hand. Everything that happens here in the dreamscape happens in real life, I promise this is-“
And then Thranduil disappeared, right in front of Bards eyes.
The man stood there, staring blankly at the place the elven king had been. He stood there for the rest of the night.
Waking up the next morning was horrible, Bard’s mouth dry as dead grass and a headache softly pounding at his temples. It was a few moments before he remembered the happenings of the night before, and he groaned as they came back. Thranduil had cut Bard’s name into his hand in some way to prove to him that this was real, even though Bard knew it wasn’t, and was probably just some last ditch attempt his mind was making to draw him out of the sorrow he’d fallen into.
It didn’t matter though. Thranduil wasn’t real, and Bard was stuck here alone, the memory of the elf, his elf’s stricken face in the dream, blood running off his hand from the delicate letters of Bard’s own name. If the real Thranduil had written it, and would show Bard today… No, it was folly to think such a thing. False hope where there was none.
It was in a daze that Bard went about his day, getting up and together, eating breakfast and meeting with the dwarves who arrived first thing in the morning. He knew that everyone else knew there was something off about his behavior, but he couldn’t find it in himself to care. This piece of hope was a terrible thing, biting at him and nipping at his heals as Bard knew that things would not turn out well.
Yet that didn’t stop him from jumping to his feet in the middle of speaking with Thorin when the messenger gave news of the impending arrival of the elves. Hope was a cruel, cruel thing, and it was blinding him to every fact that dreams were only dreams, and had nothing to do with the real world.
Bard didn’t hear Thorin asking him if he was well, instead striding towards the door in a sort of haze, fear and hope clawing inside his stomach. He barely noticed a few of the dwarves, Thorin included getting up and following him out of the meeting hall. There were only eyes for the tall figure on the elk, currently riding at the head of a procession of elves towards him.
Still knowing that none of this was real and he would dearly regret his actions later couldn’t stop him from walking halfway out to meet Thranduil, coming to a stop when his legs would carry him no further. The elf king was beautiful as always, a gorgeous picture of perfection, even despite the missing scars and the emotionless mask he wore.
King Thranduil didn’t look at Bard as he dismounted, but that damning part of his mind that still held hope commented on how odd it was that the king wasn’t waiting until he got to the usual spot where Bard and any other important people who were in Dale would greet him.
And when King Thranduil’s eyes met Bards, that little part of his mind grew tenfold. He knew this elf, he was sure of it. So sure, oh please let this be his elf. Please, someone, anyone, please let this be the one he knew.
The king drew closer until he was standing directly in front of Bard, and in a move that was surely at a normal speed but seemed to take years, lifted his hand to Bard as if in offering. For a moment the man could do nothing but stare into the elf king’s expectant and slightly uncertain eyes, before looking down to the other’s palm.
There, written in barely healed over cuts, was Bard’s name.
It was like being doused in a bucket of water on a boiling day, seeing the sun for the first time in weeks during the harsh winter, eating food after a long day of abstaining. Coming home.
For a moment time seemed to stand still. Then, all in a rush, everything came back and Bard surged forward, grabbing the elf king’s face in his hands and kissing him passionately, pouring all of the pain and despair and that damnable hope that had plagued him for the past two days into the kiss. Thranduil, Thranduil, not King Thranduil at all, kissed back just as fiercely, letting out a soft moan as he pressed against Bard fully, only a little stilted due to the height distance.
Bard had thought that the taste of Thranduil had stayed with him all of that day, but this kiss proved him wrong, the fresh flavor of the elven king something he was sure he was already addicted to.
Though he didn’t want to, Bard pulled back, opening his eyes to grin foolishly at the elf. Thranduil, without the scars or with, this was his Thranduil, and this was real.
“I promised” Thranduil murmured, and Bard let out a happy chuckle.
“I love you.” He answered,
“And I love you” the sentiment was quickly returned by the elf king who leaned back in to peck Bard on the lips again, and then again, overcome with joy.
It didn’t matter that they were in full sight of so many people, or that before this Bard had been completely unaware that Thranduil had been real all this time. All that mattered was the look in Thranduil’s eyes as he stared at Bard, flicking over his face like the elf was cataloging the man into his memory forever. The feel of his hair beneath Bard’s hands, the taste of him in his mouth.
At the moment, nothing else mattered but this.
Chapter 12: Epilogue
The decision to kiss Thranduil had been easy. It was the aftermath that was harder. Not to say that it didn’t go well, just that when one kissed the very male ice cold elven king of Mirkwood in full view of many dwarvish, elvish and human dignitaries there were, well, not repercussions, but many comments at least.
Bard had been quite tempted to ignore everyone else and take Thranduil to somewhere more private to map out his elf’s mouth, but there were things that needed to be addressed. Firstly though, he thought at Thorin’s loud exclamation of surprise, he would need to talk to his kids. It was easy to seek them out, Tilda and Sigrid in their expensive dresses and Bain in royal garb, but to his surprise none of them looked surprised themselves.
Instead Bain and Sigrid were grinning, and young Tilda actually let out a whoop of joy, calling out across the mostly silent courtyard, “Does this mean I get to meet the elk now?”
Bard looked back at Thranduil in amusement to find the elf king looked sheepish
“What did you do?”
Thranduil shrugged, “I may have been keeping in contact with your children for the past year and a half?” The end of the sentence had a rising tone, turning it into something of a question, only furthered by the abashed look on his face.
But Bard only laughed. “So did everyone but me know that the dreams were real?
“No, your children don’t know about the dreams. I assume that they thought we were writing letters and meeting in secret.” Thranduil explained hastily
Again reading his mind before he’d even asked the question, Thranduil added, “I do not mind if we are to tell them of the dreams, however I would ask them to keep it secret, as it is not something elves share with others.
Bard nodded, accepting this and accepting that there was more about the dreams that he didn’t know.
The incoherent gasping of the dwarven king finally turned into words and he loudly asked, “The elf can smile? Has the man done something to him then?”
Blushing and slightly offended, Bard released Thranduil and attempted to step back. But the elven king merely coolly smiled, holding on and ignoring the dwarf. “As we have just arrived and the rules of hospitality demands” He trailed off here and Bard remembered that the elves had just finished the journey from Mirkwood to Dale.
He would’ve been offended by the abrupt change except for the warmth in his elf’s eyes, melting all the chill his tone carried. Tilting his head in agreement, Bard stepped back smiling.
“Of course, my lord Thranduil, if you would follow me, I will show you and your elves where you may stay while in Dale.” Turning to Thorin his smile turned tight. “If you would excuse me, I must see to our guests.” It was not a request
There was no talking on the way to the elves extended stay building, almost across the city from the one for the dwarves. Bard’s children followed them, joining in and speaking to elves Bard did and didn’t know. A few moments of listening to their conversations however revealed names he had heard before from Tauriel or Thranduil himself.
When they had reached the buildings, a couple of the elves broke off, heading straight for stables that had been put in especially for the elves so near their building.
He wasn’t sure if the elven king was going to leave so soon after their display, but nevertheless he put his hand on Thranduil’s arm, offering, “As the king of Greenwood, would you prefer to stay in my quarters? I don’t expect anything, though I would like your presence” Bard added quickly.
Thranduil laughed softly a teasing lit to his voice as he commented, “I sincerely hope you don’t make that offer to every king who visits your kingdom.”
Unable to keep the adoration from his voice, he replied, “Only the ones I’m especially fond of.”
Thranduil twisted his arm delicately out of Bard’s grip and for a moment he was worried he had done something wrong. However the elf took his hand instead of pulling away, linking their fingers together.
They had barely made it into Bards home before Tilda was jumping up and down in excitement again, badgering Thranduil about her desire to meet his elk and on whether or not it was the same elk he had had at the Battle of The Five Armies.
After explaining that there was a large family of elk who ran in Mirkwood and this one was actuallly the brother of the one who had fallen in battle—to Tilda’s great distress—and that she would have to ask him if he was comfortable with her as a rider, she calmed down slightly, long enough for Bard gather his children up and usher them into a sitting room. Here he asked them how long they had known about him and Thranduil.
“Really da, you didn’t think you being subtle did you?” Bain prodded, an amused look on his face
“You didn’t even notice until I pointed it out to you” Sigrid retorted.
The boy flushed slightly, but Bard was more interested in how Sigrid had found out.
“And how did you know?” he questioned
“You always got this dreamy look on your face whenever King Thranduil was mentioned.” It was Bard’s turn to blush, avoiding Thranduil’s eyes. “And King Thranduil would always ask about you in letters or whenever we met while he was in Dale. There were more signs, but those were the main ones.”
Now would be the point where Bard would tease his elf about that for a bit, but there was something more important to ask the kids. “And how are you with this?” he asked, tightening his grip on Thranduil’s hand
It was Sigrid who answered. “I haven’t seen you so happy since mom was alive”
And that more than anything convinced Bard, almost bringing tears to his eyes. Releasing Thranduil, he stepping forward, gathering his children up in a hug.
Thranduil spoke then, slightly hesitant, “I’m not trying to replace your mother. I know that mothers—and wives” he added for Bard, “are irreplaceable.”
Tilda smiled, squirming out of Bards hold to go to the elf king. “You are not our ma. You’re our ada now. Right?”
The elf glanced over to Thranduil, a shocked look on his face. Bard raised an eyebrow, uncertain of the elven king’s response himself. He had said he loved Bard, but they hadn’t discussed any of this beforehand.
Whatever Thranduil saw in Bard’s eyes must’ve been enough however, as he smiled softly, looking back at Tilda. “If you wish me to be, of course I will.”
Letting go of his other children, the two of them walked at a slightly more sedate pace over to the elf who clarified with hesitance, “You do not have to- I do not expect anything of either of you.”
Sigrid nodded, “Do you remember how to make that pie I showed you?”
Bard frowned, confused about this pie. But the elf king nodded, “Less filling or more dough. The second, preferably.”
Nodding back, Sigrid firmly stated, “You still have to show me your own recipe.”
“I would be honored” Thranduil inclined his head
“Good.” She walked forward, quickly hugging the elf and then stepping back.
All heads turned to Bain next and he started somewhat, glancing around and then back up at Thranduil. “I’m good with this. But if you hurt da, you will regret it.” The calm tone in which he spoke wasn’t one Bard had heard before and his eyes widened in surprise, opening his mouth to chastise Bain for the threat.
“I understand” Thranudil spoke before Bard could and Bain nodded decisively.
If Sigrid had been at all cold or distance in her accepting of Thranduil, it was wiped away at her next words as she patted her siblings on the back and steered them away. “Now, da and ada have to go and have a long talk, so we’re going to go and see how the market’s being set up. Maybe that vendor…”
And then Bard and Thranduil were alone for the first time since Bard had found out the dreams were real. It wasn’t uncomfortable per say, but it was a little awkward, falling back into silence as they sat on chairs facing each other.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Bard asked finally, deciding to address things one at a time.
“That the dream was real?” Thranduil clarified, then answered, brushing away non-existence dust on his clothes. Rules of hospitality also demanded that Bard offer him a place to clean off and refreshments, but he had a feeling they were both too wound up for that.
“Because I did not know why you were there, or how you came to be in my dreamscape. The last person to be in my dreamscape other than myself was Legolas, many years ago. I wanted to know how you had come to be there and what you were going to do. When I saw you were rebuilding I was amazed. I didn’t know that could happen. Once the water’s gone, there’s very little that will ever come back. The amount of work you did was incredible.” Thranduil shook his head, tapping his fingers along the arm of the chair. “I also wanted to know if you knew if it was real. Dreamscapes are a secret elves keep dearly.
The man nodded, understanding. “You were always so amazed when things changed. Was that not normal then?”
The elven king shook his head, smiling wryly. “Wlves are immortal creatures. To what is natural we live out our lives here in middle earth, then travel across the sea when the longing comes. In almost everything we do, our lives take time. And so it is in our dreamscapes. Things don’t change so quickly as they have in the past year and a half. I thought I’d never see water there again after it dried up. I still don’t know how you managed to change so much. The death of my dreams took years, and creation should take so much more than destruction.”
“In human dreams things are always changing, jumping around.” Bard compared, uncertain how much Thranduil knew about human dreaming. “Things that seem perfectly normal in the dream make no sense in the waking world, and rarely does one come back to the same place twice.”
“Really?” Thranduil tilted his head, an intrigued look coming over his face. “I knew some of that, but not that it didn’t happen in the same place.”
Bard shrugged in answer, redirecting the subject back. “I understand why you didn’t tell me at first then, but when we started to grow closer, when we became friends, why didn’t you say anything then?”
The elf almost flinched, “Exactly that reason. We became friends. Originally I had decided to speak with you because you could not judge me. You did not know I was real. Anything I said or did would have no impact in the waking world, because you thought everything was imagined, and so wouldn’t add any weight to my words. Had I told you, had you known, there would be so much you would know that I don’t know- didn’t know if I ready for anyone to find out.
Thranduil still would not meet Bard’s eyes, looking anywhere but at him. For all appearances collected and calm, yet decidedly not when it came down to it. “When it started raining was when I realized…” He trailed off, but Bard did not push him, aware that the elf needed to say this on his own time. Closing his eyes, the elf spoke in a rush as if he was trying to get it all out as fast as he could. “I realized that I loved you, love you. It wasn’t just a free for all where I could speak and have no consequences, it had become something more, something very dear to me. I could not leave you in your pain, your uncertainty, you had to know that this was real, that we were real. And I had to know if you could feel the same way in the waking world.”
Realizing just how much Thranduil had had to lose was almost scary in its vastness. His elf had indeed spoken as if there would be no consequences to his words, which meant Bard knew so much about him, probably more than anyone else alive today. Secrets about Thranduil himself and about the whole realm of Greenwood.
The enormity of the risk the other had taken almost blew him away. Speechless, all thought of asking what the significance of the water was or what exactly dreamscapes even were flew from his mind. Shifting forward in his chair, Bard grabbed Thranduil’s face, pulling the elf towards him and kissing him deeply, trying to convey the depth of his emotion he didn’t know how to put into words.
For what seemed like ages but was probably only moments they kissed, and finally Bard pulled back, biting his elf’s lower lip and tugging at it gently before sitting back, still holding Thranduil’s face. The elf king looked beautiful like this, his pupils blown wide in arousal, lips kiss swollen and just begging to be taken again. There was something missing though.
Bard frowned, and the expression on Thranduil’s face turned from happily stunned to wary, but the man shook his head before the other could ask what the matter was.
“Your scars. Do they not exist here?” He asked softly, drawing his thumb over the place he knew to be burned away.
Thranduil tried to duck self consciously, but Bard held him firm, waiting for an answer.
“You want to, see them?” The elf asked hesitantly
“You’re perfect and they’re a part of that, of you. I always want to see you as you are.” Bard murmured, placing a gentle kiss on the left side of the elf’s face, the smooth skin under his lips turning rough and burned as the illusion was removed.
Pulling back to admire his Thranduil, Bard smiled fondly. “There you are”
The elf king grinned shyly back, joy sparkling in his eye. Absolutely perfect in every way. Unable to resist, Bard dived in to kiss him again, not coming back up until they were both breathless.
Whatever came after this would come, one way or another. Bard would ask questions about dreamscapes, water, and the past. Thranduil would ask about Bard’s life, about his children and any plans he might’ve had for the future. There would be talks late into the night and through the next week, for the rest of their lives. Other people would have questions, concerns and disgust. Thranduil and Bard would have fights, would grow sullen for days on end and then make up in a burst of passion or a late night and teary arrival on a doorstep. Many events were set in motion from this, but in that moment it didn’t matter. Because whatever came after this would be survivable, livable, brilliant, amazing. Because they would go through it together.