The sound of soft music wafted through the air. Harps and flutes mixed with voices, and countless candles bathed the main tent in a warm, golden light, softening the memories of a battle that had taken many lives and would live forever in the memory of its survivors.
The Elvenking looked around him, taking in the diminished ranks of his officers. So many of those who had followed him into battle would not return to the Woodland Realm. He knew well enough that each battle entailed losses on both sides and even the most impressive of victories was not nearly as glorious as the songs would try and make believe.
Tonight, however, he felt the pain of losing so many of his most trusted warriors more bitterly than ever before for towards the end of this battle, something had happened that had cracked the walls he had erected around his heart.
He had witnessed Tauriel’s unguarded grief, had seen her weep for Kili the Dwarf whom she had given her heart to. Seeing her give in to her emotions without following the strict Elvish behavioural code had struck a chord deep within him, making him experience sensations he had let himself become estranged from.
And now, Thranduil longed. He longed for laughter and warmth, for walks beneath the stars, he longed for companionship and the touch of another living, breathing being. And he wanted. He wanted so much that it spread like fire through his veins, but what it was he wanted, he didn’t know for certain.
His gaze fell upon Bard the bowman who stood across the room, engaged in a conversation with Rúmil, captain of the Woodelves’ archers. Relaxed in the knowledge that his children were safe and well looked after, Bard had gladly accepted the offer to rest and refresh in the Elves’ camp, had been more than happy to shed his heavy clothes and thoroughly clean himself after the battle. Clad in a borrowed Elvish tunic, breeches and soft suede boots he looked nothing like the fierce fighter he had been on the battlefield, and the soak in hot water had taken the tension out of his posture and the strained look from his eyes. His hair was still damp and the candlelight sent tiny golden sparks to dance across the dark shock of wavy hair that was laced with silver strands.
He now threw his head back and laughed at something Rúmil had said to him. His laughter was rich and throaty and it pleased the Elvenking’s ears. A smile curved his lips before he had a chance to get his features back under control, but Bard had to have felt his gaze upon him for their eyes met and locked, and something inside him stirred, hesitantly and carefully, uncertain whether it was welcome or not, yet mustering up enough courage to whisper to him. Look at the dragonslayer, it whispered, look at him. He’s a man of worth, a ruler in his own right, strong and handsome.
Worthy of a king’s attention.
Thranduil idly wondered whether the bowman had ever taken a male lover. A human’s life span was so short, reducing their horizon to a tiny speck. They were bound to remain stuck in their limited mindset, and… All musings came to a halt as Bard’s eyes darkened. A smile ghosted over his features and he inclined his head by the merest of fractions as if he had heard and understood.
“Bard the bowman,” Thranduil said, walking up to him. “What are your plans now? Will you return to Esgaroth?”
“I don’t think so,” Bard replied slowly, swirling his wine in its chalice. “There’s nothing there for me anymore. I will remain here, in Dale.”
“There is nothing here for you either. The city of Dale lies in ruins, even more so than before.”
“Aye, that is so. But it is my ancestors’ home and it is the place I wish to rebuild. I have already spoken to some of the men who have followed me into battle and they are willing to settle here, build a new life for their families and help to restore Dale to her former beauty.”
“An ambitious endeavour.”
“Possibly. But with the Dwarves’ help I think we have a fair chance of succeeding.”
“The Dwarves?” Thranduil asked incredulously. “The Dwarves have offered their help?”
“They have indeed. I believe they wish to repay the people of Esgaroth. And,” he added with a grin, “I also believe it is not entirely far-fetched to assume they wish to establish a trade relation. They, too, must rebuild what was taken from them.”
“I see. However, I wonder how much good a Dwarvish mason will do for the sculptures and intricate woodwork Dale once was famous for.”
“We will worry about pretty once the houses have been made habitable again.”
“Beauty does much to heal the soul. It is not only the most vital things you need to consider when planning to rebuild a city. Food in your belly and a roof over your head are the most pressing tasks at hand but that does not mean one has to exclude things that are pleasant to the eye. The Elves have skilled craftsmen who can provide both.”
“My lord Thranduil,” Bard said, surprised. “Are you offering your help?”
“We do not wish to impose our services on you.”
“It would be no imposition at all. We need all the help we can get.”
Thranduil tilted his head, careful to maintain an indifferent expression.
“Send word to me as soon as you have knowledge of how many will choose to dwell here and what is most urgently needed. I will personally select our most skilled craftspeople.”
“Thank you.” Bard cleared his throat. “That is most welcome.”
“Don’t thank me. It has been too long since the Elves of the Woodland Realm and the people of Dale have had dealings with one another.”
Bard raised his chalice. “To new beginnings, and to friendship.”
“To… friendship,” Thranduil echoed, raising his chalice as well. He hesitated, then added, “I was about to retire to my tent. People tend to be less on guard and a little more cheerful when their leaders are not present all of the time. I believe those here tonight have deserved all the cheer they can possibly get. You are welcome to join me for a cup of miruvor, if you wish.”
He kept his tone light and the phrasing neutral, giving Bard the chance to read no more into the invitation than what was spoken: an offer to share a cup of mead.
Bard considered the suggestion.
“It would be a shame to pass a chance of tasting real Elvish miruvor,” he finally replied. “I accept your invitation, my lord.”
Although his words were delivered in much the same non-committal tone the king had used, the sudden heat in his dark eyes told Thranduil that he had understood, and agreed.
But it was quite some time before either of them could retire. Elves and men alike were eager to speak to the king and to the man the people of Esgaroth had chosen as their leader, and so they smiled and listened and spoke words of encouragement and praise until most questions had been answered and most concerns had been heard.
Finally Thranduil signalled his guards and made for his tent. As soon as its safety had been ensured and the protective barriers around it had been reinforced he nodded his dismissal.
“I will not be needing all of you tonight. Two guards will suffice,” he said. “Bard the bowman will be joining me shortly. See to it that we are not disturbed.”
“Understood, my lord,” his guards said in unison and he stepped inside, letting the tent flap fall shut behind him. Although his tent was larger than those of his soldiers, it was cozy rather than impressive, luxurious enough for a king but not unreasonably so.
The lamps had already been lit, and some fruit, a carafe of fresh spring water and a flask of miruvor were laid out on the small table. He looked for and found the vial that contained scented oil and placed it next to his mattress, smiling to himself. In his experience, it helped to be prepared.
With a relieved sigh he removed his crown, slipped the heavy robe off his shoulders and threw it carelessly across one of the chairs. Next came the embroidered overtunic. He was about to reach for a lighter and simpler tunic to wear over his shirt when a breeze of cool air announced his guest.
“My lord Thranduil.”
Putting the light tunic back into the trunk, he turned to greet the bowman. The shirt would have to do. After all, this was not going to be an official matter where appearances had to be maintained, and both he and Bard were aware of it.
“Bard of Dale.”
They stood in awkward silence for a few heartbeats, then Thranduil went to the table to pour the miruvor. He handed a chalice to Bard.
Bard accepted the chalice and sniffed. His eyes lit up and he took a careful sip.
“This is just as delicious as the legends tell us,” he sighed happily and took a more generous gulp, closing his eyes in bliss as the warm, fragrant cordial unfolded its flavour.
Thranduil watched his throat work as he swallowed, and the warmth that spread throughout his own body had nothing to do with the miruvor, excellent though as it was. He thirsted after something that promised to be even more exquisite and he had to fight the urge to press his lips to the man’s throat, to taste and smell his skin that looked so warm and inviting.
Instead, he smiled.
“Is it to your liking?”
“It exceeds my expectations by far.”
“I am pleased to hear it.”
“As do you.”
Thranduil froze. Bold.
Bard placed the chalice on the table and took a step towards Thranduil.
“Tell me, my lord, what does the Elvenking wish to discuss with me?” His dark grey eyes bore into Thranduil’s. “What is it you want?”
Oh, but the man’s voice was husky and melodic in equal measure.
“Do you sing?”
The question was out before he could stop himself and he closed his eyes in embarrassment. Rhaich!
“Nothing. It is nothing,” he said hastily, mortified at his sudden clumsiness.
“Are you asking me to sing for you?” There was barely concealed laughter in Bard’s voice, and Thranduil cursed inwardly. What was happening to him?
“No, I was just –” He stopped in mid-sentence when Bard held up a hand.
“I believe there’s been quite enough talk for today. I certainly have run out of words to speak.” He reached for the top button of his tunic. “We both know why I am here. We want the same thing, you and I.”
Thranduil stood rooted to the spot and watched Bard undo the small buttons one by one. When he was done, he shrugged out of the garment. It slid across his shoulders and fell to the ground with the merest of whispers. The dim light added a golden hue to Bard’s tanned skin. His shoulders were dusted with freckles and there was hair on his broad chest, hair that descended like an arrow, pointing the way into the loose breeches.
Thranduil extended his hand and touched his fingertips to Bard’s chest to feel, marvelling at the warmth of his skin and the wiry texture of the curls swirling across the hard planes. He felt the steady drum of Bard’s heart and when their eyes met, the beat quickened under his hand. His own heartbeat picked up as if in response.
Slowly he let his hand travel along Bard’s upper body, noticing how the texture of the hair changed along the way, how it became softer the closer it got to the waistband. Would the rest be as soft as the hair on the stomach, or wiry like the curls on the chest?
Bard involuntarily tensed his muscles as Thranduil teased a finger across the front of his breeches.
“Thranduil,” he said in a hoarse voice, “please.”
And Thranduil finally did what he had longed to do all evening. He buried his hands in Bard’s thick hair, tilted his head back and claimed his mouth, noble manners forgotten. Bard was a hard man, all muscle and strength, but his lips were surprisingly soft and yielding and they parted invitingly. Thranduil glided his tongue inside Bard’s mouth and over his teeth, ready to explore, ready to learn. His tongue touched… He froze and pulled back.
“Fangs,” he said, amazed.
“You have fangs like a wild beast. How is that?”
Bard touched his own tongue to his elongated teeth.
“I don’t know. My father had them, and his brother, too. Do they bother you?”
“Quite the contrary.” He raised his eyebrows. “I cannot wait to find out what you can do with them.”
As it turned out, Bard knew exactly what to do, and not only with his teeth but with his hands, too. His palms were calloused and roughened from hard labour and Thranduil shivered as they roamed across his smooth skin. He gave a tight whimper when Bard’s fangs grazed along his length and he bucked up helplessly into the wet heat closing around him. It earned him a pleased chuckle that vibrated through his body, making him moan shamelessly and arch up. When Bard detected the vial, he put a few drops of oil into his palms with a grin and set out to reduce the mighty Elvenking to incoherent begging.
But Thranduil, too, knew of ways to make his lover plead and writhe on the mattress, and he made him laugh and try to squirm out of the way when Thranduil’s long, silvery strands tickled him. Thranduil’s hands were not rough but they were strong from wielding a sword, and he put them to good use. Bard fisted the sheets, all but sobbing for a release which was cruelly denied him.
“I am ready to take you now,” Thranduil finally said and Bard nodded.
“How do you want me?”
“On your back so I can see your face.”
A look of uncertainty crossed Bard’s features. It was gone in the blink of an eye but Thranduil had caught it nevertheless. He smiled.
“You misunderstand me, bowman.” He straddled Bard’s hips and his smile deepened. “I said I am ready.” He gave Bard’s manhood a pointed look. “Are you?”
“Very much so,” Bard hastened to assure him and brought himself into position.
At the first breach, Thranduil drew a hissing breath. It had been a long time, even by Elven reckoning, that he had allowed anyone to enter him and he had all but forgotten the sensation of being stretched to the point of pain, of the merciless invasion of his body, but the throaty moan that escaped Bard was all the reassurance he needed and he sank down in one swift glide, ignoring his body’s protest.
For a moment, neither of them stirred, taking their time to adjust.
Then Thranduil began to move, carefully, and Bard propped himself up on his elbows and reached for him to pull him down for a kiss. Thranduil followed willingly, his long hair cascading down like a waterfall. The kiss was deep and sweet and it took away the last feeling of discomfort.
“Stars above,” Bard whispered, “but you are beautiful.”
The words were nothing like the polished compliments paid to the Elvenking by smooth-voiced Elvish lovers but the simple statement of a mortal man, and they touched Thranduil like no poem ever had. He reached for one of Bard’s hands and placed it above his heart.
“It is you who makes me so, bowman. How I wish I could take you beneath the stars, in a grove of beeches where the air smells of things that are green and the earth isn’t burnt.”
“I am right where I want to be, my lord Thranduil.”
“As am I.” Thranduil sat back on his heels, let go of Bard’s hand and spread his arms wide. “As am I.”
His movements became bolder and soon the rest of his Elven composure and reserve vanished. Here, in this tent, at this very moment, Thranduil permitted himself the luxury of being just another male, taking his pleasure exactly as he wanted, and giving pleasure in return. As their breathing became more ragged, the smooth roll of Thranduil’s hips more erratic and Bard’s powerful upward thrusts more frantic, Thranduil reached for Bard’s hands once more.
“Touch me,” he commanded in a voice that was hoarse with lust. “Put your hands on me, bowman.”
With a deep growl Bard did as he was told and it took but a few rough tugs until Thranduil shouted his release, closely followed by Bard whose body arched up, muscles tense, eyes screwed shut and fangs bared. It was primitive and feral, and Thranduil feasted his eyes on the sight for it was he who had brought this forth.
He let himself fall forward and Bard’s arms went around him at once. They lay there in a tangle of limbs and sheets and pillows, sweaty, panting, their bodies covered with the sticky evidence of their shared passion. It went against everything that was proper but neither had the strength to move. It was Bard who finally got up with a groan and fetched a bowl of water and a cloth for them to clean themselves up.
Afterwards they crawled back into the luxurious bedding and Bard pulled Thranduil into his arms. It seemed the most natural thing to do and Thranduil let himself be held while Bard ran his fingers through the silken hair that fanned out across his chest, murmuring soft words of praise and admiration.
And there, in the near darkness of his tent, in the arms of the dragonslayer, the tears finally came to Thranduil, king of the Woodland Realm, and he was not ashamed of them. He wept for the lives lost in the battle, he wept for the loss of his mount that he had reared with his own hands, he wept for the son he had sent away on a quest… and he wept most for the wife he had loved above all. Bard held him in a sure embrace and the steady drum of his heart soothed Thranduil more than the softest of songs.
He eventually fell asleep and when he awoke, his heart felt light and full of hope, and they embraced one another a second time in the small hours just before the break of dawn. Their lovemaking was slow and unhurried and Thranduil found himself grounded and anchored in place deep within Bard.
When they said their farewells, Thranduil handed two necklaces and a ring to Bard.
“For your children,” he explained. “The pendants and the ring bear my sigil and will grant them free passage throughout my realm. Henceforward they are under my protection and no Elvenkin will doubt their station.”
“Thank you,” Bard said, putting the pieces away carefully. “That is very generous of you.”
“It is nothing. I cannot repay you for what you have done for me.” Thranduil reached out and brushed one unruly strand of hair out of Bard’s face, a small and tender gesture that brought a smile to Bard’s eyes. “For you, I have this.”
He signalled for the captain of his guard to step forward. The warrior held out an intricately carved box and opened it. In it lay a silvery chain with a deceptively simple pendant, and Thranduil took it and held it up for Bard to see.
“Mithril. This chain will not break. It was crafted by the Dwarves of Moria.”
“My lord Thranduil,” Bard said in a voice filled with awe. “I cannot accept this. This is a gift for a king.”
“And as such I give it to you. A man’s worth is not shown by the title he wears. It shows in his deeds and his strength. You have proven your worth in more ways than many a king.”
Bard raised his eyes to Thranduil’s face and what he found must have silenced his doubts for he bowed his head for the Elvenking to place the chain around his neck. He touched the pendant with hands that were not quite steady and admired the craftsmanship.
“It is beautiful.”
“Not only that.” With a nod he bid his captain to step outside and waited for the tent flap to shut. “If you keep it on your person at all times, it will slow your body’s aging process.”
“It contains Elvish magic.” He placed a hand over the pendant and felt Bard’s heartbeat underneath it. “It is for you to decide, Bard of Dale. If you wish, it will remain nothing but a token of my gratitude.”
Bard’s hand closed over his and his smile warmed Thranduil from inside out. Thus encouraged, he buried his fingers once more in the bowman’s thick hair and claimed his mouth for one last kiss, then pressed his face into the crook of Bard’s neck, committing his smell and taste forever to his memory.
Then it was time. Bard brought the pendant to his lips, then tucked it safely away under his shirt and stepped outside where a guard stood waiting with his horse.
As he rode off, Thranduil followed him with his eyes until the bowman vanished out of sight. By the time he would return to Dale with those willing to follow him, the Elves would be long gone.
The battle of the five armies was over and peace was restored for a fleeting moment while an even greater threat was preparing to rise in the south. But when Thranduil met his generals to share his findings, he found the shadow across his heart had lifted.
Bard restored the city of Dale to its former glory, and its grateful inhabitants crowned him their king. He grew to be an old man by human reckoning, but although his hair became iron grey over the years, his good health never wavered and his face and body remained as they were when he was crowned.
On the day of his eightieth birthday, he mounted his horse and rode off in the direction of Esgaroth where he had loved and lived many years ago, before Smaug the dragon had breathed his deadly fire across the town on the lake.
He never returned to Dale. When his people went in search for him, they found his bow lying broken by the river, along with his coat and boots, his horse grazing nearby. Their king, however, had vanished.
King Bard the First was declared dead in the year 2977 of the Third Age. In absence of a body to mourn, a celebration was held to commemorate his life and a monument was erected in his honour. He was succeeded to the throne by his son Bain.
It is said that when King Thranduil fought the battle under the trees in the year 3019, a man rode by his side, grey of hair, grim of face and deadly with a bow and arrow. He was known to most as Pengron, Archer, but the king called him mell nín for all in his company to hear.