The town centre bustled with activity. It was market day, and the people of Dale clustered around the colourful booths. Merchants were praising their goods, trying to drown out their rivals and hoping to lure prospective customers to inspect what they had to offer. Prices were compared, woven cloth fingered for thread count, earthenware inspected for cracks, and those in search for a new sword or helmet soon learnt there was no bargaining with Dwarves. Children scurried about and men stood talking in groups, and in a far corner, three dogs were fighting over a roast leg that had fallen off a tray. The unlucky servant who had dropped it hastened back into the inn to fetch a new one.
Bard of Dale stood by the fountain, sharing a cup of ale with an old friend.
“… and I am overjoyed with it,” Bofur the Dwarf was saying and Bard nodded in agreement.
“I would not have thought it possible either. Without your kin, we would not have succeeded so quickly. The city of Dale is forever in your gratitude.”
Bofur solemnly raised his cup. “The Dwarves of the Lonely Mountain value the friendship of Dale. Long may it prosper.”
“Long may it prosper,” Bard confirmed, looking at the hustle bustle of the market. “It feels good to see the city so full of life.”
“It is as it should be.” Bofur emptied his cup on one big gulp and signalled for it to be refilled. “Any news from your son and Balin?”
“They have arrived safely in the Shire and Master Baggins has invited them to stay a little longer to see the fireworks.”
“Ah yes, the fireworks of Gandalf the Grey are formidable indeed. Bain will enjoy them. He’s a good lad. Balin is very fond of him.”
“Aye,” Bard said proudly, “and he’s grown into a fine man. He will be a good king one day.”
“I don’t doubt it but I am sure he isn’t impatient for that day to come. You’re in remarkably good health, Bard of Dale, and I see no reason why you shouldn’t rule for many more years to come.”
“Kind words, Master Bofur, but death comes to all of us.”
They finished their cups in pensive silence, exchanged a few more words on the ongoing trade between the men of Dale and the Dwarves of Erebor and then parted ways.
Bard took a stroll across the marketplace, stopped numerous times to enquire after the health of the weaver’s father, to congratulate the innkeeper on the arrival of his first child, a healthy little girl, to ask the carpenter whether he had been able to mend the saddler’s door. He smiled at a group of young women who were debating over which quality of cloth to choose and let himself be persuaded to try some sweet cake before he reached a booth tucked away in a corner. Behind it stood a slender Elf who greeted him with a bow.
“Suilad, Bard of Dale,” he said politely.
“Mae govannen, Rímedur, son of Daeron,” Bard replied. “Well met. I was hoping to find you here. I am looking for a little something to give my daughter for her name day.”
The silversmith nodded. “I believe I have something that will please Lady Sigrid.”
Together they chose a bracelet and a matching necklace from a small tray that was kept out of sight for select customers. Bard thanked Rímedur, paid and tucked the box safely away.
“I trust business is going well?” he asked with a smile, nodding towards the table that was already half empty.
“I am not displeased.”
“I am glad to hear it. May the rest of the day be just as successful.”
Rímedur touched his hand to his heart and bowed in a gesture of thanks, then turned to a young man who approached his booth almost shyly, probably looking for a trinket to please his sweetheart.
Bard looked up to the sky. The clouds that had threatened to end the market day early were clearing up and the sun was coming out from behind the grey shrouds, and so he went to visit the one place he feared most of all but where his feet took him nevertheless when he needed to be alone.
It was quiet but for the song of a bird and the faint whisper of a breeze brushing across the gravesites. Bard made his way along the row of mounds and sank down on his knees before one of them. After all these years the grief over the loss of his younger daughter still haunted him and he felt the familiar sting of tears in his eyes.
Losing Tilda had almost broken him. He loved all of his children with all of his heart but Tilda had grown to look so much like her mother that it had felt like losing his wife all over again, only this time, she had taken her daughter with her. Tilda had been alone when she died, having laughed away her guards, saying she was only running an errand for her sister and surely her father’s men had better things to do with their time than to watch his daughter’s every step. She had been a sure rider but not even the surest of riders was safe from taking a tumble when his horse shied away from a sudden movement.
He had been unable to face his son and his elder daughter, unable to attend to his city’s needs and unable to silence the voices in his head. Had she suffered or had death been swift and merciful? Had she been frightened? Had she been calling for her father, hoping he would somehow hear her voice? Had she cried? Why had she not stayed on the road where she would have been found? Why her, and not him?
He fled to Mirkwood.
Years had passed since that one night in the Elvenking’s tent but years meant nothing in the life of an Elf, and Thranduil welcomed him without asking questions. And there, in the vast halls of the king’s realm, Bard began to heal.
And he began to understand that the gift Thranduil had given him was more than a mithril chain with a powerful spell. He had given him his heart, and the love of an Elvenking was more precious than any gem.
Bard blinked up into the sun, feeling the breeze on his face. He placed a hand on the shallow mound.
“Farewell, little one,” he softly said and rose.
It was time.
Three days later, he stepped out of the king’s halls and onto a small clearing. ‘Practising his swordplay’, the guards had told him when he had arrived and he had immediately abandoned his plan to make himself presentable before greeting the king. To him, Thranduil’s swordplay practice was a dance of terrible beauty and a reminder of how close together were joy and death, and although he had seen the king and his sword countless times he never tired of it.
A hushed silence had fallen over the clearing as if everything, every creature, every leaf of the thick beeches had stopped moving so as not to disturb the king’s concentration. There was only the whirring of his blades and the soft rustle of his tunic, his steps softened by the thick moss. Pale moonlight shone through the branches, bathing the trees, statues and pillars in silvery light, caught in the king’s long hair and made the embroidery of his tunic sparkle.
Elegant and graceful were his movements but the swords he had chosen were great Elven swords, designed to be wielded double-handed. Thranduil wielded them one-handed and Bard had witnessed him in battle, had seen what he was capable of. This was no mere swordplay. All Elves were deadly fighters but their king mastered the highest form of swordsmanship, and he was beautiful and frightening to watch. The Woodelves of Mirkwood were more dangerous than the High Elves in the West, and their king even more so.
And he was passionate, too. With what little knowledge of the Elves he had possessed, Bard had always believed them to be ethereal, otherworldly creatures, wise and fair and far removed from all base needs and wants. Thranduil was calm and collected in the presence of others, as was Elvish custom, but Bard had learnt to read him and understood the significance of the small gestures of affection he bestowed on him. A light touch to his shoulder, a soft brush of knuckles across his hand, a ghost of a smile that was intended just for him, calling him meleth nín for everyone to hear. My love. Gone was the cold Elf who would start a war over white gems, and in his stead stood a man who loved with an intensity that made Bard’s head swim.
In the privacy of the king’s chambers, where there was no façade to be maintained and no protocol to follow, Bard learnt Thranduil’s heart. Here, he heard his rich, joyful laugh and saw the mischievous dimples when he smiled. He saw him pensive and brooding, and he saw him rage with a wrath that would make a pack of wargs show their underbellies. He talked of the wife he had loved above all and lost at Mount Gundabad and he talked about his son, Legolas. Here, Thranduil let himself be pulled into Bard’s embrace, content to lay his head on his lover’s chest and listen to him sing. Bard had a pleasant singing voice, soft and husky, and had always enjoyed singing for his wife and children. It had taken him a long while to take up enough courage to sing for the Elvenking but upon seeing the joy his simple tunes brought, he had begun to learn Elvish ballads just to see the king’s eyes light up. But he still chuckled about how Thranduil had blurted out the question about his singing voice all these years ago, and Thranduil still winced when he mentioned it.
“You are early, Bard of Dale.” Thranduil had finished his practice and walked towards Bard with his usual easy grace, looking as if he had merely taken a stroll beneath the trees. “I had not expected to see you so soon.”
“Ah, but I have come at exactly the right moment. Had I arrived as agreed, I would not have seen you dance with your swords. Le bain sui in elin,” he added, hoping he had the words and intonation right. You are beautiful as the stars. His Sindarin was getting better, but it was a complicated language and he still made mistakes.
The smile he earned told him he had chosen his words well and the kiss that was pressed to his lips sent heat through his body.
“Guren linna le cened,” Thranduil whispered. My heart sings to see you. “Always. You are always welcome, meleth nín.”
He kissed the pulse in the hollow of Bard’s throat, then straightened and offered one of his swords to him.
“Will you dance with me, bowman?”
Bard eyed the blade dubiously. “I am too clumsy to join you for that kind of dance. I would embarrass you before your guards.” He nodded towards two uniformed Elves standing by the entrance.
“You will not embarrass me,” Thranduil said dismissively. “I have seen you practice with Rúmil and there was no fault in your swordplay.”
“Rúmil is my friend and he doesn’t wish to hurt my feelings so he picks the easiest of moves for me.”
“He does not. Rúmil is not sentimental when it comes to fighting. You and he have formed a friendship, but he is the captain of my archers and a skilled swordsman. He tells me your abilities have vastly improved and I have seen the truth of his words with my own eyes.” He held out the sword. “Join me.”
Bard closed his hand around the grip. Like all Elven longswords it had no cross guard which felt unfamiliar and he went through a few simple moves to get used to the way the weapon was balanced. He felt Thranduil’s gaze on him and when their eyes met, there was a look of such unguarded pride on the king’s face that Bard felt his heart jump in his chest. He finished and bowed.
“My lord Thranduil.”
“Bard of Dale.” The Elvenking inclined his head and waited for Bard to remove his heavy riding coat.
They took their positions and started with an easy routine. Thranduil matched his movements to those of Bard and they soon fell into perfect rhythm with each other. Whether it was Thranduil’s skilful guidance or whether his own abilities had indeed improved, Bard didn’t know. But it filled him with joy to find that they now shared this, too.
He was sweating and panting by the time they finished. Thranduil looked refreshed, cheerful even.
“Would you like to eat? You must be hungry.” He handed his swords to one of the guards and gestured for Bard to follow him back inside.
“I am, but I would dearly love to clean myself up. I am sweaty.”
“You are. We shall bathe together. I, too, could use a soak.”
“Be lest lín, my lord.” As you wish.
“Your Sindarin is improving along with your swordplay,” Thranduil said approvingly. “What else have you learned?”
“Bado mîtho orch,” Bard answered promptly, grinning.
Thranduil threw his head back and laughed. “Mae pennen, Bard of Dale. Well said indeed. I hope I will not disappoint you when I say that I shall much rather kiss my bowman than an orc.”
“You never disappoint me.” He reached for one of the king’s hands and touched his lips to the knuckles.
The winding corridors led them to a door that opened to another clearing where an artificial waterfall had been sculpted by Elven master craftsmen for the king’s pleasure. It was a small waterfall but it was beautiful with the water of a tiny stream falling across a series of rocks into the hot pool below, the light of the moon turning the water into a shower of silver and sparkling crystal. The Elves valued beauty in all of its many forms and the creations of their craftsmen were unrivalled.
It was Bard’s favourite place in Mirkwood, and with a deep sigh of relief he unlaced his woollen tunic, pulled it over his head along with the shirt and bent to remove his dusty boots. When he straightened, he found Thranduil’s eyes fixed on him with an expression in them that wasn’t hard to read. He held out a hand and Thranduil took it, pulling him close with a strength that Bard would have found hard to counter if he had tried. As it was, he didn’t resist one bit, but he gave a half-hearted protest when Thranduil’s arms closed around him.
“Don’t. I reek.”
“Orcs reek. You do not.” Thranduil brushed Bard’s thick, wavy hair aside and kissed the side of his neck. “You smell of sunlight and fresh air.”
“I smell of horse.”
“A little.” The king’s low chuckle vibrated against Bard’s skin. “But most of all, you smell like Bard of Dale and it’s stealing my senses.”
He let go and stepped back, spreading his arms.
“Undress me, bowman.”
Bard stifled a grin but the answering glint in Thranduil’s eyes told him he had caught it nevertheless, and he set to the task given him with maddening slowness, taking his time undoing the seemingly endless row of buttons along the tunic’s front and kissing each tiny patch of skin that was revealed. Thranduil stood very still but tilted his head just so, for Bard to gain better access to his throat.
Layer by layer the armour of exquisite material and delicate embroidery was removed and when naked skin met naked skin at last, all Elven aloofness had vanished. Thranduil claimed Bard’s mouth for a demanding kiss and Bard willingly parted his lips. Thranduil’s tongue snaked inside, challenging his to an exciting game, and Bard all but melted into the tall frame pressing against him with a need matching his own.
He freed himself while he still possessed some control over his body and pulled Thranduil towards the pool.
“Come now,” he teased when Thranduil frowned. “Let me wash off the road dirt. I do not wish to sully your delicate skin.”
“I do not have delicate skin,” Thranduil said almost indignantly and Bard laughed.
“Ah but you do.” They had reached the rim of the pool and Bard climbed down the steps that led into the water. “Pale and flawless.” He indicated towards his own chest. “Look at me. Scarred, freckled, hairy.”
“Nonsense. Your scars do you honour, your shoulders are sun-kissed and you have considerably less hair than the baldest of Dwarves. Your body pleases me greatly.”
“Why, thank –” Whatever he was about to say died away when Thranduil raised his arms above his head and got on his toes. For a moment he just stood there, his lean, hard body bathed in moonlight, and Bard’s breath caught in his throat. Look at him. He is beautiful. Then the Elf plunged into the water in a flat, long dive. He came to the surface and floated idly on his back, and Bard followed his example, letting the hot water soothe his tired muscles.
Afterwards, they made love on the soft cushions that were spread out for their comfort, taking their time with each other. Bard knew Thranduil’s body as intimately as his own and yet, there was always something new that excited and thrilled him. The Elves were not familiar with the concept of bashfulness, and Thranduil was a generous and shameless lover. He gave pleasure in abundance and took it just as freely.
And when his smooth voice finally broke and turned hoarse with lust, when he flung his head back to expose the strong column of his neck and closed his long legs around Bard’s hips in an iron grip, Bard let go of what was left of his self-control and shuddered through a release that was so sweet and hard that all he could do was bury his face the curve of Thranduil’s neck and wait for his breath to slow down.
They slid back into the pool. Bard looked up into the treetops and took a deep breath.
“I am ready,” he said.
The next day, they set out to seek the counsel of Lord Elrond, ruler of Rivendell and bearer of Vilya, the Blue Ring, mightiest of the Three.
He received them in a corner of his vast gardens where the scent of flowers sweetened the air and soft music was heard from nearby.
“Welcome Thranduil, son of Oropher, and welcome, Bard of Dale.”
“Greetings, my lord Elrond. A star shines upon the hour of our meeting.”
Bard listened to them exchange more flowery Elvish phrases of greeting and tried to commit them to his memory, but he had difficulties following Lord Elrond’s words for he was unfamiliar with the Sindarin dialect the ruler of Rivendell spoke.
When Lord Elrond finally addressed him, he was relieved to hear that he did so in the Common Tongue.
“I recognise the chain you are wearing, Bard of Dale. It was made by the Dwarves of Moria.”
“So I was told, my lord.”
“Tell me what it is that brings you to Rivendell in the company of Thranduil, ruler of Greenwood the Great.”
Bard searched Lord Elrond’s face. His features were stern and hard to read, but there was kindness in his eyes and so Bard took heart.
“The magic contained in the pendant is weakening. I cannot feel it in my body nor in my mind, not yet, but my hair is turning grey and I believe my time is running out.”
“Such is the fate of all mortal men.”
“Aye, so it is. But I wish to be by my lord Thranduil’s side, and I stand before you most humbly to seek your counsel and guidance.”
“What you ask for is not lightly granted. Why should you be privileged thusly?”
“Den melin, my lord Elrond,” he simply said. “I love him. With all of my heart. More than anything.”
The Elvenlord’s eyes widened by a mere fraction.
“There is a price to pay for what you ask.”
“And I am prepared to pay it.”
“Are you prepared to abandon your city? Your people?”
“They will not be abandoned. The city of Dale is prospering. My son Bain is ready to take the throne and my daughter Sigrid will be by his side to advise him, if need be.”
“You will have to watch loved ones wither away while you will not.”
“I have watched loved ones die. Mortal men are not spared this pain.”
Lord Elrond inclined his head, considering this, then his eyes locked with Bard’s.
‘I see your heart, bowman.’
Bard blinked and looked around him uncertainly. Where had these words come from? Who had spoken them? Next to him, Thranduil stared straight ahead, not moving one muscle, the very image of Elvish discipline.
“I hear your words, King of Dale. With your permission, I should like to hear Thranduil as well.”
“Certainly. Thank you, my lord.”
He stepped back while Lord Elrond gestured for Thranduil to approach him. They spoke in hushed tones but he wouldn’t have understood them anyway for the words he caught did not sound like Sindarin at all. So he stood at attention, hands clasped before him, and waited.
Thranduil returned to Bard with a grim expression in his eyes but didn’t speak before Lord Elrond nodded his dismissal and turned to leave. When he was gone, Bard searched Thranduil’s face.
“Where is he going? What’s happening now?”
“He is retiring to the Great Hall to think and to study.”
“He has listened to us, and he has looked into your mind.”
“What?” Bard asked again, louder this time.
“Lord Elrond possesses the gift of ósanwe.”
“What is that?”
“He can enter others’ minds.”
“Are you telling me he read my thoughts?”
“He searched your heart and found it worthy.”
“And what does that mean?”
Thranduil gave a weak chuckle. “It means, mell nín, that he will consider your wish.”
“Oh.” Bard fell silent for a moment. “So what are we to do now?”
“We are his guests and are free to roam the gardens and halls of Rivendell until we are summoned.”
“And when will that be?”
“I do not know."
They walked in silence until they reached a balcony that looked out across the valley. Bard would have much enjoyed the splendid view at any other time but today, his eyes were blind to the beauty that spread out before him.
“What did he say to you?” he finally asked when he couldn't take the silence any longer.
“There is a price to pay for what we ask of him.”
“That’s what he said to me, too.”
“I am to enter into an alliance with Celeborn of Lórien.”
“Celeborn? Isn’t he the reason your father retreated into Mirkwood?”
“My father was not fond of Lord Celeborn,” Thranduil acknowledged. "His… disagreement with Lord Celeborn has long been forgotten and this is not the time to hold on to old grudges. Lord Celeborn and I are of one opinion on that matter."
Bard sensed there was something else. “So what is it? What brings a frown to your face?”
“My passage to the Undying Lands is the price I will have to pay.”
It was delivered almost indifferently and Bard felt his heart drop.
“I cannot accept this. That is too much to ask of you. I will not have you give this up for me.”
“It is not for you to decide, bowman.” Thranduil raised his chin in defiance. “What does it signify?”
“But Thranduil –” Bard was grasping for words. “You have told me about the terror that is rising in the South and I have learnt all about Sauron there is to know from Gerín. There will be no winners in that battle.”
“I could die in any battle.”
“Not if you sail to the Undying Lands!”
Thranduil shrugged, an utterly un-Elvish gesture that he had adopted from Bard. It usually made Bard smile, but not now.
“Tell me, what good is eternal life if you are not there to share it with me?” He reached for Bard’s face and brushed his thumbs across his cheekbones. “Gi melethig, Bard of Dale. You have my love. I will not leave you.”
There was nothing to add to that, so Bard pulled Thranduil down for a kiss that was sweet and lingering. The king linked his long fingers with Bard’s and didn’t let go even when they continued their walk, making Bard realise that despite his outward calm, Thranduil was as tense as he was, if not more so.
Four days passed before Lord Elrond finally summoned them. He was in the company of three Elves who looked upon them with something akin to… curiosity? Bard narrowed his eyes. Elves were hard to read at the best of times but he could have sworn these three looked to be at least mildly interested.
“Bard of Dale, I have seen your heart and found it to be true. It brings me joy to grant you your wish and welcome you into our Woodland folk.” He signalled for one of the Elves to step forward and took the small cushion he was presented with. On it lay a simple ring with a white gem mounted to it.
“Thranduil, son of Oropher, have you considered what I asked of you?”
“I have, my lord Elrond.”
“And what is your answer?”
“Very well.” The ghost of a smile darted across Lord Elrond’s stern features. “It is done, then.”
He stepped up to Bard and locked eyes with him once more.
“Take this ring, King of Dale, and know that it was made by the jewellers of Gil-Galad, High King of the Noldor. The magic it contains is linked to Thranduil, King of the Woodland Realm. Should he perish before his time, all magic will be lost and you will perish along with him.”
“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Bard said in a firm voice.
This time, the smile reached Lord Elrond’s eyes and he nodded, satisfied with the reply he had been given. Thus encouraged, Bard took the ring and slipped it on the third finger of his right hand. It was a little loose and he considered putting it on his middle finger, but when he started to remove it he found that it sat tight. He blinked and looked to Thranduil whose eyes held an amused glint. Magic, he seemed to say and Bard felt the corners of his mouth curve.
He bowed deeply to Lord Elrond. “You have my deepest gratitude, my lord,” he said. “I am forever in your debt.”
Lord Elrond inclined his head.
“Friendship is like a flower that blooms forever,” he replied in slow and clearly accented Sindarin for Bard to understand. “And love even more so. Come now, Bard of Dale and Thranduil of the Woodland Realm, be my guests and dine with me.”
When they reached Thranduil’s halls in Mirkwood, Bard stayed for a few more days before he returned to Dale.
“I can’t tell you how much time I will need,” he told Thranduil. “There are still a few things to be taken care of and Bain has set out to the Shire with Balin before I left. I’m not sure if he has returned yet. I will send word when I am ready and I will meet you by the ruins of old Esgaroth.”
“I hope to see you there,” Thranduil said, placing a hand above his heart.
“You will see me there,” replied Bard. “I will come.”
It took him almost a year before he finally sent word to the Elvenking, but on the day of his eightieth birthday, he said his farewells to Sigrid and Bain, embraced his grandchildren one last time and galloped through the city gates without looking back.
Thranduil stood waiting for him by the banks of the Long Lake, accompanied by his most trusted guards. Bard counted thirty of them and they stood at attention when he rode up to them to greet their king.
“Greetings, my lord Thranduil. My heart sings to see you,” he said in Sindarin.
“It is my joy to see you again, Bard of Dale.”
The king dismounted his deer and walked up to Bard who jumped off his horse. There was a look of such unbridled joy in Thranduil’s eyes that for once, Bard did not care for Elvish reserve. He pulled Thranduil into his arms, buried his hands in his long, silken hair and kissed him. Let the Elves have something to talk about tonight. Thranduil stood stockstill for a moment, then his arms went around Bard and he let himself be kissed before the eyes of his soldiers.
There was a smile on his face and his dimples showed when he stepped back.
“I take it all went well?”
“Saying good-bye is never easy, but my city is in good hands and my children have grown up to be strong and wise. What more can a man hope for?”
“I am glad to hear it.”
He signalled for one of his Elves to step forward with a bow and quiver in his hands.
“Welcome, Bard, pengron of Mirkwood. Please accept these from your Woodland kin.”
Bard took bow and quiver and ran his fingers along the bowstave. He drew the string back and hummed approvingly.
“These are beautiful, my lord. Peng nín linnatha go vagol lín.” My bow shall sing with your sword. “I can’t wait to try it.”
“My archers will be pleased to train with you.”
“You honour me.”
“On the contrary. You will honour them.”
Bard nodded, his throat suddenly tightening. He cleared it and asked, “Did you bring what I asked?”
Thranduil signalled another guard who led a grey horse towards them.
“This is my gift to you. His name is Thalionen, and I have broken him in myself.”
“Thalionen,” Bard repeated, caressing the horse's dark muzzle. “That’s a good name.” He opened the bag that was strapped to the saddle and pulled out a light coat and a pair of soft suede boots. “Thank you.” His voice threatened to break and he hastily bent down to remove his heavy riding boots and slip into the suede pair, then changed coats. He walked back to where his horse stood grazing, dropped his old boots and coat carelessly to the ground and took off bridle, saddle and bags. He patted the horse’s neck.
“Good-bye, my friend. I will miss you. Run home, if you want, or run free.”
Breaking his old longbow came hardest and it brought tears to his eyes, but it had to be done. Bain would send a search party as agreed, and the broken bow would leave the message he wished to convey. He looked across the Long Lake where the ruins of old Esgaroth were slowly, but steadily being claimed by the water. He had lived there, and he had loved there. It had all happened a long time ago.
Throwing a last glance in the direction of Dale, he turned his back and went to where the Elves stood waiting for him. He mounted Thalionen and brought him up next to Thranduil’s deer.
“I’m ready. Let’s go home.”
And thus began the story of Bard, pengron of Mirkwood, who fought side by side with Thranduil, Elvenking of the Woodland Realm.
It is said that long after the fall of Sauron, when the Mirkwood had been renamed Wood of Greenleaves and the realm of Thranduil flourished once more, the Elvenking was granted passage to the Undying Lands at long last.
With him was the bowman he had given his love to.