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Bard Becomes an Honory Elf

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Thranduil was pacing in front of his throne. He couldn't bring himself to sit when his son was dying. Letting out a strangled cry, he pulled at his hair, increasing the speed of his pacing until it was frenzied.

By the Valar! Elves weren't even supposed to get sick, especially once they were past their first millenia (which Legolas most certainly was), yet his ion was, at this moment, lying deathly ill in the infirmary.

What really got Thranduil was the fact the healers actually knew what was wrong with Legolas, they even knew what herb they needed to cure him, they just didn't have any. Earthbread was native to The Shire and surrounding lands and none grew past the Misty Mountains. Once, this wouldn't have been a problem. The Greenwood had enjoyed healthy trade with most parts of Middle Earth, The Shire included but then the darkness had returned. Greenwood had become known as Mirkwood once more and Thranduil had become reluctant to retain his open borders-both for his people's sake and the traders'. Consequently, their stores of rarer food items and herbs had dwindled, only buying what they could from Laketown and what they could procure from their own lands.

Legolas was going to die because of his own reclusiveness.

Of course, Thranduil had sent his fastest riders racing west in a bid to find what Legolas needed but the healers had little faith they would return in time to save his son and Thranduil was at a loss of what to do.

"My Lord, you should rest. You haven't slept in days." This reasonable advice came from Feren, his trusted General who hadn't left his side in recent days, but Thranduil wasn't in the mood for reasonable. In an unusual loss of composure, Thranduil crossed the room in the blink of an eye, slamming the startled elf against the wall and holding him there.

"Rest? You think I can sleep whilst my son grows weaker every second?" Thranduil's voice was harsh, his face twisted in a snarl. But suddenly his grip slackened, his anger dissolving as quickly as it had come. "I can't-I-I can't lose him too Feren. My heart won't endure it." This time, his words were a barely there whisper, his voice sounding broken.

Before Feren could try and formulate a reply, the throne room doors opened, revealing a familiar figure.

"My Lord?" Galion began, "There is someone requesting an audience." Thranduil frowned, he'd already told Galion to suspend the usual royal proceedings and he knew his people would respect his wishes.

"Did one of the patrols find something unusual?" This seemed the only explanation as to why someone would be interrupting his time of pain but Galion shook his head.

"No. It is a human." Thranduil's shock was mirrored in Feren's expression. Mortals rarely ventured deep into the forest these days and none who did made it to the Woodland Realm. "There is more My Lord," Galion continued, himself seeming confused. "It is a child. A young boy."

Thranduil could not remember being so suprised in several centuries. "A child?" He asked finally. "Is he lost?" Again, Galion shook his head.

"No, he specifically asked to see you. He won't say what about but he seemed quite sure."

Curiosity piqued and momentarily distracted from his worry, Thranduil waved to show the boy in and Galion disappeared, returning a short while later with a small figure in tow. Thranduil moved to stand in front of his throne once more, eyeing the little mortal critically. He couldn't have been more than ten. Although the boy's clothes were worn, he held himself well. He was thinner than he probably should be but warm brown eyes suggested the child was at least happy if not well fed. A roughly made satchel was slung over one shoulder and a small hand gripped the strap tight.

"And who are you?" From Galion's small wince, Thranduil guessed his voice was rather colder than he'd intended it to be. Certainly the boy paled slightly.

"Bard m'lord," was the reply and his voice held a curious lilt. What was even curiouser was the elven style bow which accompanied it. Someone had familiarised the child with elvish customs it seemed.

"Well Bard, the forest is a dangerous place, especially for one so young as you. I am unsure what spurred you to traverse it but before I ask, first tell me how you reached here unharmed?" It pained Thranduil to see the darkness which now ensnared his forest and whilst elves could still walk in it freely, the truth was it had become a perilous place for humans.

Bard's small shoulders shrugged. "I just stuck to the path." Thranduil's eyebrows climbed high upon hearing this. Sticking to the path was not so simple as it sounded-illusions often plagued mortals, disorientating them until they left the path without even realising, never to be seen again.

"You must have a strong mind indeed young one." Thranduil smiled to see the slight blush his words caused, Bard shifting uncomfortably at the compliment. "But still I confess no clue as to what would make you take such a risk." Thranduil's sharp eyes did not miss the way the boy's hand tightened around his bag.

Not meeting Thranduil's gaze, Bard answered softly. "Laketown is alight with the news that the Prince of Mirkwood is ill, that he's dying and you do not have what is needed to save him." Thranduil felt his anger stir. Did the people of Laketown have nothing better to do than gossip about other people's suffering? However, Bard's next words stopped him in his tracks. "And well, I was just uh wondering if this is what you were looking for?" Whilst he'd been speaking, the child had taken a small glass flask from his bag and even in its sliced, dried form, Thranduil recognised the content for what it was: Earthbread.

To Thranduil, the journey to the infirmary had never taken so long. It seemed an age until they were finally bursting through the doors, startling healers and patients alike. Lithenrial, the oldest and most experienced healer hurried towards them, eyes widening ever so slightly at the sight of Bard.

"Lord Thranduil," she inclined her head. "I am sorry but despite my best efforts, Prince Legolas has worsened. I do not think he will last much longer." Thranduil sighed with relief: his son was still alive.

"Here, I believe this is what you need." A surprised look briefly flitted across Lithenrial's face as she took the offered flask from her king but then she glanced at Bard and understanding settled over her features. Wasting no more time, she spun away, heading to the bed at the very end of the room.

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"Sire?" Thranduil had collapsed in a chair by his son's side as soon as Lithenrial had given him the all clear. It seems the little human had arrived just in time. Now, he looked away from Legolas, turning towards Galion. "I think it would be best if we put Bard to bed. Shall I take him to one of the guest quarters?"

Bard had taken a seat next to the elvenking but more time must have passed than he realised for now the child had curled up and was now fast asleep. Gratitude welled in Thranduil's chest as he looked at the sleeping boy. He owed the child everything and nothing he could do would ever appease the debt between them.

"I'll take him. Stay with Legolas and send word immediatley if he wakes up." With these words, the immortal elf ever so gently scooped up Bard and carried him all the way to the rooms usually reserved for visiting royals where he carefully tucked the child into bed. Allowing his gaze to rest Bard for a moment, Thranduil wondered about the child he owed so much to. Did he have a family? A home? Where had he gotten the Earthbread?

Thranduil resolved to ask Bard in the morning and to help him in any way he could. It would be the least he could do.

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No matter what happened to him later, Bard would always tell of the happiness he found in the woodland realm as a child.

When Thranduil had found out about Bard's status as an orphan, he had offered him a place in his home, which Bard had accepted eagerly. Just as eagerly, he had accepted Galion's offer of Sindarin lessons and a recovering Legolas' archery tutelage. Somehow, he even convinced Thranduil to teach him swordsmanship. Slowly, he had wormed his way into the hearts of all the elves and he was welcomed into their culture.

So, by the time he was fourteen, Bard appeared more elf than human. He wore elven clothes, spoke fluent Sindarin, carried an elvish bow-he even avoided eating meat like the elves did. Happy to accept the kingdom's borders, he hadn't even returned to Laketown since the fateful day he'd saved Prince Legolas' life.

He spent much of his time with Legolas, whose feelings of gratitude towards Bard had changed to friendship. He found the human was warm and open in a way elves typically were not. Galion had also played a large role in the young man's life. Indeed, he had become like a father to him. Of Thranduil, Bard saw little, due to him being busy with the kingdom. But when they did meet, he usually managed to pry a laugh or smile out of the typically icy King.

But still the darkness of Mirkwood continued to grow, attracting every sort of foul creature imaginable. One such creature set its eyes on the lightness of the elven kingdom, its attention particularly caught by the mortal who seemed to inspire affection and happiness from the usually reserved elves wherever he went. It intended to see that light snuffed out.

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Thranduil knew something was wrong as soon as he looked up. He could count on one hand the times Galion, Feren and Legolas had all gathered in front of his desk and it was never to bring good news. Emphasising this was the distress evident on Legolas' face and the stiffness in Galion's stance.

It was who Feren spoke first, "Lord Thranduil, Tauriel reports that one of the patrols was attacked this morning." Thranduil frowned. The ungoliants had been more daring recently yet they were easily repelled and it was rare for an elf even to be injured during an attack.

"Was someone hurt?" Feren shook his head.

"No but several guards claim to have felt a darker presence amongst them. Something more powerful than the spiders. We are not sure what it may have been but-"

"It has Bard!" Legolas' worry was clear as he interrupted Feren but Thranduil remained confused as to why he would think that. He'd talked to the human just a couple of hours ago and he'd expressed no plans to leave Thranduil's halls.

"You must be mistaken ion. Bard said he planned to spend this morning in the library." But Galion was already shaking his head before he'd even finished.

"I am afraid not my Lord. He only told you that to hide his intention to seek out a gift for your name day." Bard had taken to elven traditions very quickly, embracing festivals such as The Fading of the Year in autumn and the tradition of giving gifts on people's namedays. Whilst Bard's gifts often lacked the finesse and elegance typically prized amongst elves, the thought and effort that went into them had suprised many. Thranduil could see that his son was actually wearing the leaf broach Bard had clumsily made for him during the first year he had spent in Mirkwood.

"He went out with the patrol and they were on their way back when they were ambushed. Three of Bard's arrows were found in ungoliant corpses but of him there was no trace," Feren finished sadly, head lowered.

Thranduil straightened. If Bard was truly missing then everything would be done to find him again. He had not forgotten the debt he owed the boy. But more than that was the real fear Thranduil felt creeping through his veins, the sorrow threatening to overtake him at his mind's suggestion that perhaps he would never be found, that perhaps it was already too late.

Search parties were sent out but to no avail. Bard was gone and grief descended upon the elves of Mirkwood as they mourned for the child who had brought them so much joy. Legolas realised how lonely he'd been before Bard, his noble blood preventing him from having many true friends. Galion cried for the bright laughing child he had thought to call his own and Feren watched helplessly as his King once more retreated behind an icy mask. A shadow was cast over the entire realm.

A century passed. And then two and the elves' grief lessened but they never forgot. Then, the Company of Thorin Oakenshield arrived and with them, events which none could have foreseen.

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Dark. Endless dark. The only break to the darkness was pain. Sometimes it was red hot. Other times it was sharp and cold, the ache haunting him for an age afterwards. Always, the pain was accompanied with the creeping suggestion to just give in, to let the darkness consume him. And it was so tempting.

But he did not.

One day (or was it night? He did not know, time was meaningless here), there was no new pain. Instead, the darkness solidified into a figure, terrifying for its malevolence.

"You have a strong mind young one." The voice was insidious, worming its way into his thoughts until his head was full of nothing but those words (and did they not sound familiar, as if he'd been told them before?). "But I grow impatient and I do not think you will break anytime soon. No matter, there are other ways."

A new fear sprang up in him then, deeper and more powerful. Desperately, he scrambled back as the figure advanced, expression gleeful at the terror it inspired. But there was no escape, no miraculous rescue and he could do nothing but close his eyes as the thing descended towards him, mouth open wide in a grotesque grin.

Later, much later, he rose with new strength in his limbs. The darkness was a part of him now.

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Riding into the ruins of Dale, Thranduil was struck by the feeling of recognition, reminded of other places lost to dragon-fire. He was shaken out of his morbid thoughts by an out of place whisper.

"Sig, do you think that's the elf Da told us about? King Th-Thran-Thrandeel? He certainly has pretty hair like he told us." Strange. Humans had not lain eyes on him for nearly two centuries. Who was this girl's father?

The speaker herself was not hard to locate, her large smile meaning she stood out from the grim survivors of Laketown. No more than seven, the young child stood next to an older girl (perhaps a sister?) and was looking at him with an expression akin to awe. This was not unusual among mortals, but what was unusual was the way she held his stare as he rode by, smile still wide on her face. Hmmm...strange.

Reaching the city square, Thranduil elegantly dismounted from Merellien and looked around at the gathered townspeople. They were so few.

“Who leads you?” Thranduil tried to soften his voice, not wanting to scare the survivors. He wasn’t sure he was entirely successful but eventually the little girl from earlier spoke up.

“My Da! He’s the one that killed the dragon you know.” She puffed out her chest as she announced this, obviously very proud of her father (and with good reason. Thranduil knew from experience that dragons were not so easy to kill). Kneeling down in front her, Thranduil couldn’t help but smile at the wonder in her eyes.

“And where is your Da now?” This time it wasn’t the little girl who answered, but the older one standing beside her. She spoke carefully, eyes moving from Thranduil to the mass of elves behind him, taking in every little detail.

“He’s out foraging for food. If you don’t mind me asking, why exactly have you come?”

Thranduil paused before answering, considering his answer. Once upon a time, he wouldn’t have come at all. Or if he had, it would have been for the gold and jewels in the mountain, not for the people of Laketown. After all, what were a few human lives, so short anyway, compared to the immortal lives of elves? But now…

“I’ve come to help.”

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Thranduil was in a foul mood.His scars were hurting more than usual today and he’d just received a rather prissy letter from Elrond. To make matters worse, Galion had informed him that they’d run out of his favourite wine! Storming into the library, Thranduil looked for a target for his ire and his eyes fell upon Bard, whom had instantly fell in love with all the books as soon as he had discovered the library a few weeks ago.

The boy had done nothing and yet Thranduil couldn’t stop himself from marching over to him, glowering. When Bard looked up, he paled slightly at the look on Thranduil’s face.

"Your highness?” Bard’s voice was the very definition of tentative.

“Tell me mortal, does it not bother you that in a few decades, your body will be nothing more than dust for the worms. How do you ever get anything done knowing that your time in Arda is so short? Does your life not lack meaning?” Thranduil spoke harshly not caring that he was probably scaring the boy or that if his words ever reached Galion or Legolas, they would make him regret them. All he cared about was making sure that someone was as miserable as he was at that moment.

But Bard didn’t look miserable. Instead, a look of determination swept across his features. “M’lord, it is precisely because my life is so short that it has purpose. Every action means twice as much because I do not have eternity to make them, every experience more meaningful because I might only have the chance to experience it once, every emotion amplified because I do not have forever to feel them,” Bard paused and took a breath, “Just because humans are not long lived like elves, does not mean we are not worth just as much.”

Thranduil stared down at the little mortal, startled by the passion with which he spoke and the truth of his words. Sighing softly, his anger forgotten, Thranduil apologized.

"Forgive me Bard. I should never have spoken to you like that.”

"It’s fine. Leggy warned me you get short tempered when-“ Bard stopped abruptly, perhaps worried he had spoken out of turn or perhaps startled by the rather inelegant sound Thranduil made. It took him a few seconds to work out that the famously cold elven king was laughing!

"Di-did you just ca-call my so-so-son Leggy?!” Thranduil’s mirth was evident in his voice which prompted Bard to start giggling too.

When they had both gotten themselves under control, Bard explained that he thought that Prince Legolas of Mirkwood was a bit of a mouthful so he’d come up with the nickname ‘Leggy’. Thranduil, mock seriously, had replied that he’d thrown people into the dungeons for less.

When the king left the library, he felt much lighter than when he’d walked in. He also left having learnt a thing or two about humans. Never again would he think himself automatically superior to them.

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The two girls had introduced themselves as Tilda and Sigrid and whilst they waited for their father to return, they helped Thranduil organize the elves. Sigrid directed Lithenrial and her healers towards the make shift infirmary where they immediately set to work before aiding Thranduil in handing out the supplies he had brought. All the while, Tilda shadowed the elven king chattering about his pretty hair and asking a lot of questions. Frankly, Thranduil thought she was adorable

 

Slowly, the people of Laketown (or should that be Dale now Thranduil mused) relaxed around the elves, grateful for the aid they had brought. Thranduil was just discussing arrangements for temporary shelters with Sigrid when Tilda yelled ‘Da!’ and left his side to launch herself straight into the arms of a tall man with a bow slung across his back who had been making his way towards them.

 

Thranduil watched as the man easily caught Tilda and swung her around, smiling the whole while before setting her down again. Taking her hand in his, he continued making his way towards Thranduil, seemingly unsurprised by the appearance of a group of elves whilst he’d been gone. Stopping a short distance away, the man smiled slightly at Thranduil, his face friendly but his eyes guarded.

 

“My Lord Thranduil, your presence here makes me glad as does the supplies you have brought,” he said, bowing as he did so, Thranduil was silent for a moment, eyes running up and down the man’s form. His voice was vaguely familiar.

 

“You are welcome. Though it seems you have me at a disadvantage. Whilst your daughters told me you are the leader they did not tell me your name.” It was the man’s turn to pause this time whilst Thranduil waited for his name and when it did come, a jolt of recognition swept through the elf.

 

“Bard.”

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He fled from the ruins of Dol Guldur, running fast through the forest. Too fast, impossibly fast a voice whispered in the back of his mind. He didn’t even know where he was running to. Dimly he remembered graceful figures and halls filled with light but he couldn’t comprehend how these memories belonged to him. They were too clouded by pain and the endless dark.

 Breaking through the trees, he found himself on a desolate plain, eerie for how empty of life it was and in the distance, mountains. Ominous clouds hovered above them, illuminated by a terrible red light which both repelled him and drew him closer. It called to him, so tempting and he wanted so badly to give in.

 "You must have a strong mind indeed young one."

 The words echoed in his head, the voice neither particularly warm nor encouraging and yet somehow, they inspired in him the strength to turn away. Then, he was running again except this time he was headed south, along the forest edge and away from the evil which so enticed him.

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 Thranduil was seated in his tent, lost in thought and memories awoken by hearing that name again. He and Bard (but not the Bard he had known he reminded himself. That Bard would have died years ago) had spent the last few hours of daylight discussing what Thranduil had labeled the “Oakenshield problem”. In his opinion, the dwarves had been foolish, risking so much and so many lives for gold and one measly mountain. And now, despite the destruction wreaked because of their actions, Oakenshield was refusing to even pay the Laketown survivors the gold he had promised them. Thranduil had been of the belief that they should forcibly take what was owed to them but Bard had advocated a more cautious approach and it had been decided he would ride to Erebor in the morning to try and reason with Thorin.

 Pffft…as if you could reason with a Dwarf, Thranduil scoffed.

Although to be fair, Thranduil found he was not quite so eager to cause trouble with the Dwarves as he might once have been and combined with the stirred up memories of the mortal boy he’d known so long ago, he had not argued too hard for war.

Bard had been such a compassionate child.

 

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It was one of those rare occasions when Thranduil found himself without any pressing matters to see to and it had occurred to him he might see how Bard was settling in. The boy had only been in his halls for a few short weeks after all.

 However, this was somewhat hard to do when the child had proven impossible to find. He was neither in his rooms, nor the library nor with Legolas (which was unusual in itself) or in countless other places Thranduil had thought to look. Eventually he gave in and sought out Galion which he had wanted to avoid as his attendant was always unbearably smug in such situations.

 Upon reaching Galion’s room though, Thranduil quickly changed his mind. Galion and Bard were seated next to each other on a cushioned bench. In one hand, the elf held a painting and Thranduil knew, without having to see it, who it would contain a picture of: Alassë, Galion’s daughter whom had perished four centuries ago in a border skirmish.

The child was listening intently as Galion told him about the daughter he had loved so much, warmth and sympathy practically radiating from him in waves. And then, when Galion had fallen silent looking haunted, Bard had thrown himself at the elf, small arms wrapping themselves around him as tight as they could. Galion had seemed taken aback at first. Such open gestures were rare amongst the elves. But slowly, he’d relaxed into the embrace, the beginnings of a smile on his face as he’d looked down at the young human.

Thranduil had left before either of them noticed he was there. Perhaps he should spend this time with Legolas instead.

 

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Thranduil was shaken from his memories by the sound of voices outside his tent.

 

“But Da, said I could say good night to King Thran-Thrande-Thranduil. You have to let me in!”

 

Smiling at the already familiar voice, Thranduil went to the entrance before his guards could turn the owner away. As he’d thought, just outside his tent stood little Tilda, not looking the least bit intimidated by his two elite guards. She lit up when she saw him.

 

“Well Miss Tilda, I believe you’ve got something to say to me?” Tilda nodded enthusiastically in reply.

 

“Goodnight your Highness!” Her happiness was evident in her voice and Thranduil felt something melt inside him as he wished her a goodnight in return. This child was truly adorable. And, as he watched her run back to her tent, if Thranduil was distracted by thoughts of her father and warm brown eyes, then that was nobody’s business but his own.

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The next morning, Thranduil was standing next to Bard, waiting to see him off on what he was sure would prove to be a fruitless endeavor.  As Bard was finishing prepping his horse, he looked up at the stern elven King.

“You seem different today,” at Thranduil’s raised eyebrow, he hastened to clarify, “Calmer, more focused.”

Thranduil hesitated before replying. “You caught me off guard yesterday. You share a name with an old…friend of mine.” His words caused something to cross Bard’s face but it was gone in a flash and it was his turn to raise an eyebrow.

“Oh?”

“Yes. I was unprepared for such a reminder and perhaps my recollections distracted me. My friend’s story did not end happily,” Thranduil finished softly.

Bard turned to hide the flash of pain darkening his face. The elven King spoke truer than he knew. 

 “Well,” he forced himself to say, “I think I am about ready. Let us see if I can negotiate with Thorin. Surely he must see sense!” And with that, Bard swung himself up surprisingly gracefully onto his horse and was gone.

 Noon came and went and Thranduil busied himself with helping Sigrid continue the work on Dale. When Bard returned, he wore an unusually grim and expression. Plainly his business at the mountain had not gone well, thought Thranduil.

 It seemed they would have to resort to violence after all.

 

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Chapter Text

It didn’t take long for his new, sharper senses to pick up the sounds of pursuit as he headed south. Hoof beats thundered not far behind him and he knew he could not outrun them. These horses seemed to run with an unnatural swiftness.

It was twilight when some vestige of courage made him stop. He would face his pursuers on his own terms. They did not leave him waiting long.

Nine riders surrounded him. Their black steeds circling him, red eyes rolling and their breath coming in over loud snorts. If the horses were unnerving then their riders were truly terrifying. To a mortal’s eyes, they were figures wreathed in cloaks as dark as the shadow who controlled them but he could no longer claim to be mortal. Now he walked in the shadows as they did and could see them as they truly were. Husks of men, victims of their own greed and bound to the very same darkness he had seen gathering over the mountains.

Distantly, he wondered if that was the fate which awaited him.

“Why do you turn from the Dark Lord who would so welcome you?” The riders had stopped and one had dismounted, head bent at a reptilian angle as they asked their question. “Return with us and you will know power beyond what you had thought possible man-no-more.”

The offer was so tempting. The shadows were so alluring. He could be one of them. He could-

“No.”

For a moment, even the whispering spirits of the wraith world were silenced but then-

The screeches of metal as nine morgul blades were unsheathed from their scabbards, a serpentine hiss in the half-light, “Refusal will mean your end.” Surprisingly, he felt little fear at these words. Death was surely a better alternative than his current state of existence.

Standing tall as the nine wraiths converged, he was completely unprepared for the faint white light which emanated from him. Upon touching the wraiths, it caused horrific shrieks to rend the air and they fell back under the onslaught as if burnt. He was left dumbfounded as the nine riders fled back to the land of shadow whence they had come.

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It was late evening and both Thranduil and Bard could be found in the elven King’s tent. By now, news of the events up at the mountain had spread throughout both the men and elves’ encampments and there was a palpable tension as they all considered the conflict which now seemed unavoidable.

Meanwhile, Thranduil was left to deal with an irate Dragonslayer. Not that he minded. In fact, as the elf lounged in his throne (not quite as grand as the one he had left in his throne room) he could not help but think the man was exceedingly attractive when he was angry. Back straight and shoulders thrown back as he paced, eyes bright with passion, cheeks flushed with fury. Why, Thranduil could hardly be blamed if his attention wandered as the man ranted.

“Valar-damn the stubbornness of Dwarves! Is he really prepared to go to war over some gold?”

“A whole mountain of gold.” Thranduil reminded him mildly.

“And what is gold at the end of the day? A cold, lifeless lump of metal that’s only good for making jewellery! I swear, if we didn’t need it to rebuild our homes and buy provisions I’d leave Thorin to his ridiculous metal and accursed mountain!”

Bard stood, breathing heavy with emotion and he finally seemed out of words. Thranduil rose elegantly to pour him a glass of Dorwinion (he never traveled anywhere without wine). He passed it to the man who accepted it with a nod of thanks.

“Does gold really appeal so little to you Dragonslayer?” Thranduil was genuinely curious. He had seen enough men, dwarves and even elves fall prey to gold lust to know greed was something universal to all races. And in answer, Bard sighed, shoulders slumping in innumerable weariness.

“I just do not wish for lives to be lost because of a dwarf’s inability to relinquish some lumps of metal.”

Waving a hand dismissively, Thranduil replied, “They number just thirteen dwarves and one hobbit. I hardly think they present such a challenge.”

“Thirteen dwarves and a hobbit who are hidden behind a wall of solid rock!” Bard’s eyes flashed, “People are still going to die Thranduil!”

Thranduil nodded, feeling humbled. “You are right. I’m sorry, I did not mean to make light of the situation.”

“And what of the others in Thorin’s company? I cannot believe they all feel as their Lord does. They seemed like a well meaning lot,” as he spoke, Bard thought back to when he had offered Thorin’s nephews shelter, to the instant connection Sigrid had seemed to Share with Fili and of the kindness in Kili’s eyes. “I do not want their blood on my hands.”

Thranduil sank back onto his throne, a glass of wine of his own in his hand. He thought of what his younger self would have to say if he could see him now, worrying over the lives of a few dwarves. Finally, he offered a solution.

“Perhaps there is a way to spare them. After all, we do not have to kill them, only subdue them and take what Thorin promised you in Laketown. I am sure my healers could mix a sedative which we could smear on our arrows and simply shoot them in none lethal places. An easy feat for any elf.”

The look of hope and gratitude on Bard’s face was making him slightly uncomfortable and Thranduil couldn’t help but shift in his seat as he finished speaking.

“Thank you Thranduil. Not just for this but for all you have done for us.” Thranduil started to dismiss him but Bard interrupted, eyes warm and smile soft as he stared at the elf king, “do not say it is nothing for it is not. Truly, I am not sure where we would be without you.”

Thranduil looked down at the ground unable to meet the sincerity of Bard’s gaze. “Perhaps I am tired of standing by and watching idly.” Or perhaps a human child once taught me the importance of compassion, he added silently. Moving the conversation on, Thranduil looked up at Bard again, “We still need to discuss strategy. After all, you did point out the minor problem of a solid wall of rock.”

Bard nodded, “But perhaps that can wait til morning? This lowly mortal is rather tired.” And indeed, his earlier anger seemed to have left Bard drained and weary.

Thranduil smirked slightly; a look which Bard noticed suited the elf very much. “Why of course Dragonslayer,” and there was a touch of irony to the title this time, “My general, Feren may have arrived by then anyway. He is sure to have some useful insights.”

He had left the Woodland Realm as soon as the smoke over Laketown had been seen with just the supplies and guards who had been able to be mustered immediately. Thranduil had left Galion and Feren behind to organize more troops and provisions but they should be arriving soon.

“Until tomorrow then,” Bard said, placing his empty glass down on a table. Thranduil stood to see him out.

At the tent flap, he looked at Bard, the smallest of smiles on his face, “Good night Dragonslayer.” Bard huffed in annoyance. Stepping outside, he turned back to the elf.

“Enough with that ridiculous title.”

Thranduil raised his eyebrows. “But that is what you did is it not? You slew a dragon?” And Bard grinned to hear the teasing in the King’s voice.

“Aye. But every night I read to Tilda and yet people do not call me Bard the Book Reader.”

Thranduil inclined his head in acknowledgment of his point. “Very well. Good night…Bard the Book Reader.” Bard’s delighted laugh warmed him to the core and he pretended not to notice his guard’s look of astonishment as he joined in. It felt good to laugh again.

As Bard walked back to his own tent, he let the smile fade from his face. And once there, mindful of his sleeping children, he collapsed onto his bed and groaned into his pillow.

It would seem he had not outgrown his childhood crush on the elven king after all.

Chapter Text

More elves did indeed arrive the next day. And unlike the ones who had arrived with Thranduil, who were mostly healers, these elves were warriors and an entirely different sight to behold. Dressed in gleaming golden armour and armed with exquisite weaponry, the survivors of Laketown could only watch in awe (and with a small amount of fear) as the army of elves effortlessly divided itself up and set about making camp.

Bard, however, was not there to greet the new arrivals. No, instead he found himself fighting his irritation as he was called upon to resolve a dispute which had arisen between a man and his best friend (although it was safe to assume it was now former best friend). Bard watched with no small amount of exasperation as the two men threw increasingly ludicrous accusation at each other. He just simply could not fathom how who ate the last of the salted fish really mattered when their town lay in ruins and they stood on the brink of war. Pinching the bridge of his nose and summoning up a patience which could only come about from raising three children, Bard stepped between the two men.

“Gentlemen please, I am sure this can be easily sorted out. After all, we are all friends here, are we not?” Still acclimatising to his new position of authority, Bard was slightly shocked as the males actually stopped shouting at each other and turned to him with grudging respect in their eyes. “Right then, care to tell me what this is actually all about?”

Their was silence for a moment and then-

“That bastard stole my last piece of fish! And that’s not all, oh no. He nabbed my only pair of gloves as well!” This came from the slightly shorter of the pair whom Bard vaguely recalled as a fisherman by the name of Ered. His accusations caused a bout of outraged spluttering from the other man.

“I did not and you’re a fool for thinking I did,” came the sneering reply. Sighing inwardly, Bard held up placating hands.

“Ered, do you have any proof of your claims?”

Another moment of silence.

“Well, errrrrr, no. But-but he did it! I know he did!”

Bard fought the urge to roll his eyes. Now he thought about it, Ered had always had a bit of a reputation for exaggerating the truth and it was quite possible that this was all a misunderstanding.

“You know the law Ered, no proof, no punishment and perhaps, considering that and the fact I’m sure the elves will be able to give you new gloves and some more fish, perhaps it’s best if we put this behind us with a simple apology. From both of you.”

More outraged spluttering followed this suggestion.

“Why should I apologise? I didn’t do anything wrong!”

“Apologise? To the likes of ‘im! I don’t think so!”

Bard had had enough. He drew himself up to his full height and stared at the two men in front of him.

“Do you not think, in light of our current circumstances, that we have more to be dealing with than unsupported allegations of petty theft?” Bard did not shout, in fact he did not even raise his voice at all but the steel in his tone was evident nonetheless. Both men seemed to slump with the reprimand and nodded in acknowledgement. “So, I’ll ask again, both apologise and perhaps we can all get on with more important matters.”

Looking thoroughly chastised, the two turned towards each other and muttered “Sorry”. Satisfied, Bard nodded to himself.

“Good, now I’m sure you can both find something to be getting on with.” Immediately, both men turned and scurried away.

Staying where he was, Bard sighed. He had neither wanted nor looked for the power he currently held. He had simply wanted to live out an unassuming life (or as unassuming as his life would allowe) with his children. But faced with the desolation caused by Smaug, the survivors had, for some reason which escaped him, looked to Bard for instruction and reassurance. Seeing how no one else had been willing to step forward, he’d had no choice but to accept the role of leader but that didn’t mean it sat well with him. Even considering that this mess with the dwarves might be resolved quickly, what then? The Master had fled and there was no one else to take charge.

No. Bard knew that that responsibility would fall to him and from now on, his life would be full not only of crises, but the tedious banalities of ruling as well, like solving petty disputes such as the one he had just witnessed. Sighing again, Bard knew he could not and would not turn his back on his people, but that didn’t mean he had to like his new position.

Sighing for a third time, Bard turned on his heel. He was long overdue at Thranduil’s tent where he King and his newly arrived general were no doubt already discussing strategy.

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 Something had relaxed in Thranduil with the arrival of Galion and Feren. Officially, they were his attendant and general, but to Thranduil they had always been more than that. They were his oldest friends.

The only person missing was Legolas who was no doubt chasing after Tauriel and that blasted dwarf. Putting aside his worry for his son, Thranduil re-focused his attention on Feren and the map in front of them. Bard had yet to arrive and Galion was organising the distribution of food along with Sigrid so it was just the two of them in his tent.

“It is just as the human says,” Feren was saying, “It is the mountain itself which poses the problem, not the dwarves themselves. If we find a way in, everything should be relatively simple from there.”

Thranduil raised an unimpressed eyebrow. “Yes, yes, Bard and I had actually managed to reach a similar conclusion all by ourselves Feren. Please tell me your supposed tactical genius has something more helpful to observe.”

Feren stared at his lord. Was that a note of teasing in Thranduil’s voice? Just what had happened in the few days they had been separated? And his address of the humans’ leader was interesting too. Not ‘the Dragonslayer’, not “the human” or “the mortal” or even “the Lord Bard”. No, Thranduil simply called him Bard. Hmmmmmm, intriguing.

“Well Your Highness, Erebor is unfortunately infamous for its impenetrability and it is entirely possible we may never find a way in,” Thranduil scowled but Feren continued, “However, I do not think the answer lies in us getting in but rather in us luring the dwarves out.” Feren paused, thinking.

Thranduil waved an imperious arm, “Do continue.”

“Well, considering the fact they escaped from our halls without their supplies and could not have procured too much during their stop in Laketown, we can assume their provisions are low and we can simply starve them out.”

It was a classic tactic when besieging a target but not without good reason. No one can survive without food.

“It won’t work.”

Feren had noted the arrival of another by the soft sounds of the tent flaps opening and closing. Turning towards the newcomer, Feren thought it was safe to assume that this was Bard, an assumption proven quickly by Thranduil.

“Bard, at last, I was beginning to think you had gotten lost.” The Elven King’s voice was warm and soft smile played around his mouth as he looked at the human. Again, Feren was confounded by his friend’s behaviour, for it had been a century or more since he had smiled so easily.

Moving closer to the map, Bard smiled in return. “I apologise for my lateness, I was…delayed.”

Thranduil waved away the man’s apology. “Well now you are here, may I introduce you to my trusted general, Feren. Feren, this is Bard,” a pause and a sly smirk shot Bard’s way, “Bard the Dragonslayer.”

Rolling his eyes, Bard turned to the other elf and Feren was almost certain there was something like recognition in the human’s eyes as he bowed in a traditional elvish greeting. “It is good to meet you Feren.”

“And you also, Bard the Dragonslayer. It is indeed a mighty feat you accomplished.” In response to his words, a slight flush appeared on Bard’s cheek.

“As I have told Thranduil,” Feren marvelled at Bard’s easy use of his King’s name and even more so of Thranduil’s acceptance of it, “Just Bard will do.”

Feren nodded in acknowledgment.

“So what makes you think starving them out will not work?" Thranduil’s question brought them all back to the matter at hand.

Studying the map, Bard tapped a finger on the image of the Lonely Mountain. “The ravens have returned to Erebor. Thorin can easily make use of them to call for aid,” his finger traced across the map eastwards, “most likely from the Iron Hills. After our failed talk the other day, I am sure he will have sent word to his folk there and if quick, Dain could be here in a couple of days, maybe less. Thorin’s company can easily survive until then and we will face a lot larger problem than we do now.”

Silence followed Bard’s words. Not necessarily because of their grim implications but because of the knowledge they displayed. Bard may have killed a dragon but all that proved was his exceptional aim. He was still a simple bargeman from Laketown and yet his knowledge of the dwarves and their ways was far more in-depth than that would suggest.

Finally, Feren spoke, “You are right, that had not occurred to me.” Bard was still studying the map so he did not see the look traded between the general and his King. “Instead, perhaps we can entice them out. With the right incentive, perhaps some or all of them, can be persuaded to leave their mountain or to just hand over the gold they promised.”

Before this avenue of thought could be explored, the entrance to the tent opened once more, admitting a familiar and welcome figure.

“My Lord, a bottle of Dorwinion because, knowing you, you are almost certainly running low already,” Galion announced with a flourish and a knowing smirk. He moved towards Thranduil only to freeze as Bard looked up.

The bottle of wine slid from his grasp, crashing to the ground and shattering but the graceful elf did not react. He stood perfectly still, staring at Bard, eyes wide and face pale. A single word passed his lips.

“Ion?”

Chapter Text

After his confrontation with the wraiths, he had simply sat for a little while. In his hands he held an elegantly crafted brooch which he was certain had been what had produced the white light.

Looking at the clean lines of metal and the complex intricacies of the engraving, a thought had tickled the back of his mind.

……elvish…this is of elvish make……

And with that thought had come a memory.

An ethereal hall, the architecture a blend of pale stone and twisting trees. Within were graceful figures-the elves-and they were dancing and laughing and singing. One figure stood out, shorter than the rest and without their grace but a wide smile split his face and warm brown eyes twinkled with mirth as he twirled to the music weaving its way through the hall.

The young boy danced seemingly without tiring but eventually made his way to one of the tables littering the edges of the room. A brown haired elf sat at one of the chairs and though he had the usual beauty and youth graced to all elves, his eyes gave him away as being one of the older ones.

“Tired?” He teased. The boy huffed and looked away.

“No,” but it was said too quickly to be true, “I just thought you looked lonely Galion.” The elf smiled at him, touched by the words and the sentiment behind them even if they were not the whole truth.

“Well perhaps it is time to return you to your rooms anyway. It is late and after all, little mortals aren’t really made for all night dancing.” Galion’s voice held nothing but affection as he beheld the boy in front of him.

“Fine. Although I could continue dancing if I wanted to.”

Galion hummed noncommittally as they left the hall. The boy didn’t even seem to notice how he was swaying with exhaustion.

“You know, it was not so long ago that I had to carry you from the festivities. You were so adorable, asleep in my arms.” The elf grinned when his words elicited an embarrassed groan.

They had almost reached their destination when Thranduil appeared, swaying ever so slightly. Galion nobly resisted the urge to laugh at his obviously drunken king and friend.

“Galion! Bard! How lovely to see you!”

The human and the elf shared twin looks of mirth at Thranduil’s overly enthusiastic greeting.

“A pleasure to see you as well My Lord. May I enquire as to how many glasses of wine you’ve had?” Thranduil waved away Galion’s question.

“Pffffft, hardly any just three or four…bottles.”

Galion suppressed the desire to face palm and instead focused on keeping a straight face.

“Perhaps then it is time to retire Your Highness?”

“Retire? But the night is still so young!” It was in fact only a couple hours from dawn but Galion knew better than to remind the king of this. “Although before I go,” Thranduil fumbled with something on his exquisite robes, “Here.”

Thranduil was holding an object out to Bard, who was staring at the outstretched hand with a look of shock on his face. And it only took a second for Galion to understand why. What Thranduil was offering was a brooch. It was beautiful, unusually so even for elven craftsmanship and this was because of a simple reason: it was not of Middle Earth. This particular piece Thranduil had been wearing when he had first sailed to Arda and had all the splendour of the elven havens whence it had come. Galion sucked in a sharp breath.

“My Lord, I cannot accept this,” Bard’s young face was conflicted; he knew what he was being offered.

Thranduil frowned, “Of course you can. After all, midwinter is a time for gift giving is it not?” He didn’t give the boy much of a choice as he pressed the brooch into Bard’s right hand and swept back towards the music, step wavering slightly due to all the Dorwinion he had consumed.

Galion watched as Bard reverently examined his gift, a smile of wonder on his face. Looking up at the elf, his smile dimmed slightly, “He’ll ask for it back right? When he’s not as…”

“Drunk?” Galion grinned before turning serious, “No I don’t believe he will. It is not the elven way to take back what was given as a gift.”

They walked the rest of the way in silence which wasn’t broken until Bard was in his bed and Galion was turning to leave. He hesitated before making his way back to the boy. Galion’s smile was fond as he saw Bard’s eyes had already drifted close. Tucking the blanket more firmly around him, Galion pressed a soft kiss to the young human’s brow before murmuring in Sindarin-

“Bain dǔ ion,” and anyone hearing the elf would have to have been inconceivably ignorant to not hear the love in his voice. He spared one last glance, full of warmth and then left.

If he had stayed, he would have seen the large smile stretching across Bard’s face; the happiness and wonder evident surpassing even his expression upon receiving Thranduil’s gift.

The memory faded and as he stared down at the brooch in his hands, he realised that that boy, Bard, was him. He was Bard. And with that realisation came the rest of his memories. The shadow of his parents before they were lost to a boating accident, his short time in Laketown’s orphanage, then him saving Legolas and the subsequent years spent in Thranduil’s halls. He remembered it all.

That was good. He felt better now that he had a sense of self again but…now he knew the true consequences of his time at Dol Goldur. How could he ever return to the elves now that he was a creature of darkness? Knowing that returning wasn’t an option, Bard pocketed the brooch and faced south once more.

Perhaps Gondor could offer him anonymity.

 

 

“Ion?”

Bard stilled, not daring to look up. That voice brought back a torrent of memories and emotions and he knew he would not be able to hide from its owner. He was undone.

Before he could decide on a course of action, Galion made the decision for him and he found himself wrapped in familiar arms and it was like nothing had changed. Somehow, Galion’s embrace was able to provide the same amount of comfort and reassurance it had done when he was just a little boy.

“Oh ion,” the words were half sobbed into his hair and Bard felt answering tears in his eyes. How he had longed for this, to be reunited with what he had lost…

“This is not possible. It has been two centuries since the Bard we knew was lost Galion”

….and those words brought rationality back to Bard’s mind and with it, all the reasons he could not have this. Not anymore.

But Galion was already moving, releasing Bard and turning towards Thranduil.

“My King, you would recognise Legolas anywhere would you not?” Thranduil nodded, “Then trust me when I say that this is Bard and that I care not how he has come to be here, only that I am thankful that he is.”

Bard could only wonder if Galion would still not care when it was revealed what he truly was.

“What say you Dragonslayer? Are you the Bard we lost?” The words were imperious, a demand for an answer that could not be refused. This was not the Thranduil that had warmed to him the last few days or even the one he had come to know albeit distantly in his childhood. This was Thranduil the King. Cold. Superior. Merciless.

Looking around, Bard saw a similar question in the eyes of Feren, now filled with distrust and even in Galion’s. Rather than answer with words, he simply reached into a pocket carefully sewn into his rather battered coat and retrieved an item. Opening his hand he revealed a broach. The same broach which had saved him from a path of darkness all those years ago. A broach imbued with the power of Valinor. He knew it would be answer enough.

What happened next proved that the sword Feren carried was not just for ceremony. He had the blade at Bard’s throat in the blink of an eye, his face impassive, ready to do what he must to protect his King. Galion issued a shout of protest but one look from Thranduil silenced him, although there was a whisper of disobedience in his stare.

Walking slowly, the King circled Bard and Feren, looking every inch the elven lord he was.

“There are many ways to prolong a mortal’s life. None of them pleasant. None of them good,” a pause, “I do not forget the debt I owe you and it is because of this that I will offer you a chance to explain.” Here the Elven King paused again, stopping right in front of Bard’s face, “But if I do not like what I hear, or I detect even a single suggestion of untruth, you will be beheaded where you stand.”

Another sound of protest from Galion but Bard considered Thranduil’s words. It hurt to have Thranduil look at him like that, to speak of killing him so easily and Bard had to admit to himself that perhaps his crush on Thranduil was a little more complex than he’d thought. But in his heart he knew that the chance he was being offered was more than he could have hoped for-more than he had hoped for.

“Aye. I will tell you but it’s not a short story and I would prefer not to tell it all with a sword to my neck” He looked pointedly at the blade just mere millimetres from his skin.

A nod from Thranduil had Feren lowering the sword, although reluctantly and even then he did not sheathe it. The message was obvious: Bard was not to be trusted. But the silence was expectant and so Bard swallowed his hurt and began to speak.

It was easy at first, to talk of his plans to find a gift for Thranduil, his excitement of accompanying the guards out into the forest. It grew harder when he recounted the spider attack and harder still to talk of the pain and confusion when he awoke alone in the dark. He couldn’t bear the look on Galion’s face as he told of the years of torture, the almost constant agony of the attempt to break his mind, so Bard focused on the table and map in the middle of the tent. And then he reached that day; the day when everything changed.

“I think it gave up. Said something about my mind refusing to break and then he mentioned other ways…” Bard drew in a ragged breath, “it ripped my throat out and drained my blood but-but I didn’t die. The thing brought its mouth to mine and sort of exhaled and the darkness which surrounded it became part of me too. I passed out and when I woke things were different, I was different. I couldn’t remember who I was but I was strong and fast so I started to run and didn’t stop until I reached the edge of the forest.” He detailed the rest of his journey and the pursuit of the nine riders. It was easy to tell that the three elves knew exactly what they were and what their appearance meant.

“You don’t understand how tempting their offer was. How much I wanted to give into the darkness in me but…I didn’t and when they tried to attack me the brooch emitted a light which repulsed them. It wasn’t long after that I got my memories back. And it was only then that I understood what I had become.” Bard stopped, the words drying up. Even now he hated to say it, as if saying it aloud was what made it real. Thranduil seemed to have no such objections.

“A wraith. You are a wraith,” though quiet, his voice still betrayed the horror he felt.

Bard nodded.

“But that is not possible. Only a wound from a morgul blade or a ring of power has the ability to so change a mortal,” Feren’s words were tinged with disbelief. Bard shook his head.

“You’re wrong. There is another possibility though you do not want to admit it and I, at the time was ignorant to it. Man has forgotten much it seems but the library of Gondor has many records and I find, as a wraith, that it is much easier to travel unseen if I wish and to access even what is closely guarded. Sauron would have the power to change me, to corrupt with his darkness and enslave more servants to his will.”

“No! Sauron perished at the Battle of Dagorlad long ago!,” said Feren desperately.

Thranduil remained silent, stare locked with Bard’s.

“As I understand it, Sauron’s spirit is tied to his ring and that was never destroyed, was it?” Bard's voice was inisistent.

Thranduil looked away, unable to maintain eye contact as he answered.

“No. It was not.” Both Galion and Feren were unable to contain their shock, heads snapping to look at their King. “Isildur was unable to resist its allure and failed to throw it into Mount Doom. It was lost a short time later. It was decided by Lady Galadriel, Lord Elrond and I that this information be kept secret. We hoped the ring never to be found and Sauron never to rise again yet…”

“Yet there are once again rumours of a growing shadow in the east,” finished Bard, “and Dol Goldur was once his fortress and darkness too exists there again.” A grim silence followed his words until Feren broke it, springing into action.

“Very well, so you are a wraith, a creature of darkness. A servant of Sauron! I say we end your pitiful existence now.” With the skill of millennia, his sword cut straight for Bard, only to be met by another blade. Galion had propelled himself in between the other elf and Bard, a long knife held in his hand and determination glinting in his eyes.

“No! Were you not listening mellon? He didn’t give in! By the Valar-Bard held a relic of the Undying Lands and was not harmed! How can you believe him to be evil?”

“You are blinded by your feelings for him Galion. But this is not the child we knew. He is not the boy you called your son!” Bard flinched, though he knew Feren had a point. However, Galion held his ground.

“No you are right Feren, he is not a boy any longer, he is the man I call son. He was tortured for years but did not break, was turned to a wraith but is not of the darkness, has slain a dragon and fights to protect his people. I could not be prouder. Min mellon, ceri- ú- ceri- hi.”

Bard was touched by Galion’s words but indecision warred on Feren’s face and he would not allow Galion to be harmed in his defense. Stepping out from behind the elf, he faced Feren.

The tension was broken by Thranduil who finally broke his silence.

“Lower your sword Feren”, whilst his voice was soft, it was unmistakably an order. “Please, both of you, I would speak to Bard alone.” He cut off Feren’s protest quickly, “I do not believe Bard is anymore a servant of Sauron than you and even if he was, do you doubt my ability to protect myself?” Thranduil arched a brow, “I seem to recall beating you every time we spar.”

“I don’t doubt your skill, just your self preservation,” Bard heard the other elf mutter as he sheathed his word, and from the wry twisting of his lips, Thranduil had heard it too. But he said nothing. With a quick bow and a warning glare at Bard, Feren strode from the tent. Galion remained. He too bowed to Thranduil before turning to Bard. A second’s warning was all he got before Galion was enveloping him in another hug.

“I meant every word I said ion.”

“Thank you.”

Galion nodded as they separated, emotion obvious in his eyes, “Come find me afterwards. I would like to meet these children I have heard about.” Without waiting for Bard’s agreement, he went to exit the tent and then hesitated, “I missed you.”

Bard smiled softly, “And I you…ada.”

Galion smiled in return before leaving.

Bard turned back to the elven king, the happiness of the last few moments fleeing as he waited for what Thranduil had to say.

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Looking at Bard, Thranduil could scarcely believe his story. The man looked so human, so grounded and yes, appealing. Thranduil could not deny it. It seemed his attraction had not lessened despite the revelations of the last few hours. Yet still, it was hard to reconcile the image of the man with that of a wraith.

“How is that you appear as you are. The nine riders have no bodies and yet you do.”

Bard took a moment to reply, “I think it has to do with how I was made. And the fact I turned away from the darkness. I do not completely inhabit the wraith-realm because, I would like to think, I have not totally abandoned my humanity. It is simple enough for me to throw off this form and when I do, I am like them. Less substantial, faded and I see the world with shadow overlaid, as they do.”

Thranduil nodded thoughtfully, “That makes sense. You spoke of being stronger?”

Shrugging carelessly, Bard replied, “Yes. Stronger, faster, sharper senses, immortality clearly and when I am in my other form I am different too. Those abilities are amplified, I am invisible to an extent and there are other things too.”

Thranduil marvelled at how casual Bard sounded as he spoke of his powers. Yet he did not miss the stiffness of his posture, the wariness in his eyes. Bard was not proud of what he was, Thranduil realised. In fact, he loathed it, thought himself an aberration. Thranduil pondered this. What were his own thoughts on Bard now? He knew he still felt attraction and there was curiosity as well. But…it was deeper than that. He saw the troubled frown marring the man’s forehead and wished to smooth it away, wanted to assure Bard that what he was, what he had resisted, made him so far removed from the monster he believed he was that it was unreal.  And when he had threatened to have Bard killed, he had recoiled from the very thought. Thranduil had not felt this way since the passing of his wife but perhaps now was the time to make room in his heart for someone else, or at least try to.

First though, more questions.

“What of your children? They are not yours biologically I assume?”

This line of questioning was unexpected Thranduil could tell, but Bard answered readily enough.

“No, but there is more to family than blood.”

“Of course, you and Galion are proof of that wouldn’t you agree?. I meant how did you come to be their guardian?”

Sadness washed over Bard’s face and Thranduil had to stifle the urge to go comfort him.

“I spent many years travelling before coming back to Laketown and honestly, I never meant to stay. Too many memories,” Bard cleared his throat before carrying on, “But I bumped into a harried looking woman, a child of six holding one of her hands, whilst she balanced a babe on her hip with the other and showing signs of expecting a third. The whirlwind that was Mathilde drew me in and we became fast friends, shenanigans ensued,” he was grinning now but it quickly faded, “There were signs the birth was going to be difficult from the start. She had just enough time to name the child Tilda and make me swear to look after her kids before she passed.”

“I am sorry Bard.”

“So am I, she was a wonderful mother and a true friend. I even told her the truth of my nature and she didn’t bat an eye. Sigrid is a lot like her.”

Thranduil was quiet for a while and then, “Do they know? About you?”

Bard nodded, “I dislike lying to my children.”

“You are a good father,” and Thranduil believed that whole heartedly, perhaps if he was more like Bard, he would never have alienated Legolas like he had.

Shaking such thoughts from his head, Thranduil walked to his dresser. Holding up the half empty bottle of Dorwinion which Galion had been coming to replace, he glanced inquiringly at Bard.

“Wine?”

Shaking his head ruefully, the man smiled, “You truly believe that alcohol is the answer to everything don’t you?”

Ah, so they could still tease each other. That was good thought Thranduil.

“Nonsense, I just like how it tastes, that is all.”

Bard laughed at that and the sound broke any remaining tension that was lingering. It still inspired the same feelings of warmth in Thranduil and the elf couldn’t help but grin as well. He went ahead and poured the man a glass and one for himself too. He used the excuse of handing the glass to Bard as a way to stand closer to him. But then, the great elven king, famously cold and superior was struck by something he very rarely felt-shyness.

Seeming to understand, Bard sipped the wine before putting the glass down gently on top of a nearby table. Taking Thranduil’s as well, he placed it down next to his. And when he turned back to the elf, he was much closer than before and Thranduil could easily admire the rich warmth of his eyes and the slight lines which crinkled at their corners, so endearing.

“Thrandu-“ Bard stopped then started again, “Thranduil, you must know the effect you have on me,” Thranduil’s heart soared, “and I know I could never hope that you would feel the same towards me now you know the tru-

There was really only one way to shut up such stupid thoughts and so Thranduil pressed his lips to Bard’s, tilting his head down ever so slightly to meet the other male’s mouth and stopping Bard mid-sentence. Slightly awkward at first due to Thranduil’s spontaneity, the kiss soon developed into something worthy of an epic romance as Bard pulled the elf tight to his body with one arm, whilst gently cupping Thranduil’s face with the other.

One kiss turned into two, then three, and then more as the King struggled to get enough of the soft press of Bard’s lips and his slightly spiced taste. Bard seemed equally enraptured by Thranduil, taking care to be gentle in a way that touched the elf’s heart whilst imbuing his kisses with a passion that made Thranduil breathless.

Of course, such happiness had to end and they reluctantly drew apart to find that time had not stopped for them.

Keeping a hand on Thranduil’s waist Bard spoke first, voice thick with reluctance, “We have duties to attend to. There is much to organise.”

Nodding wearily Thranduil agreed but, “I wish we did not. I wish we had the time to explore this. Valar-damn those blasted Dwarves!”

“Indeed,” chuckled Bard, “But we will have time afterwards, when all this is over.”

Thranduil pouted, “I suppose.” The petulance was evident in every syllable. He pressed another quick kiss to Bard’s lips and then stepped fully away. “I will need to have Feren fetched to plan a way to deal with these Dwarves quickly and effectively. Will you be going to find Galion?”

“Yes, and then to make sure my children haven’t been causing too much trouble amongst other things. Shall I come back tonight to discuss progress?”

“That seems wise. I will see you in a few hours for our discussion and,” Thranduil smiled coyly, “other…activities.”

An attractive flush rose in Bard’s cheeks as he went to leave but he was stopped by Thranduil’s next words.

“And Bard? I would have you know that I do not care whether you are a man or wraith or anything in between, so long as you are Bard.”

Bard’s answering smile would have rivalled the light of the two trees themselves.

Chapter Text

Under the mountain…

 

Bilbo paced back and forth.

“Confound those blasted Dwarves! What to do? What to do?” He threw his hands in the air in frustration. He couldn’t simply let them go to war because of some gold. What if one of them died? What if they all died? No, it simply wouldn’t do. The very idea was ridiculous.

Slipping a hand inside his waistcoat, Bilbo fingered the Arkenstone. Here was the root of all their problems. It was driving Thorin mad, twisting the noble dwarf he’d grown to care for! But perhaps…perhaps it could also be the solution he needed.

Bilbo sighed. He couldn’t think. He was just one Hobbit. One very tired, worried Hobbit who didn’t know what to do. He'd thought the worst of their worries would be a dragon but Smaug was dead and now they were left with a King who couldn't see past the gold sickness pervading his every thought. 

THUD!  A sound caught his attention, interrupting Bilbo's sorrowful musings. Listening hard, Bilbo made sure the Arkenstone was covered and turned to make his way back to the main hall. It wouldn’t do to arouse suspicion, wouldn’t do at all.

Walking along the stone hallways, Bilbo could admit that Erebor was beautiful in its own way. The sheer size of the place was incredible and the stone work magnificent. But it was cold too. And not just because the dwarves’ forges hadn’t been lit for decades, but because of the emptiness. It was so vast, so bare that it was eerie and Bilbo was filled with a sense of disquiet. He didn’t know if it would be possible to make it the home Thorin remembered – like the busy bustling city he had described - but he hoped they got the chance to try.

He had just passed one of the countless empty rooms when another noise snagged Bilbo’s interest. Whispering, he was sure of it! His fingers played with the ring in his pocket but didn’t slip it on. Hobbits didn’t need strange rings to escape attention when they wanted to. Creeping noiselessly, Bilbo entered the room and sure enough, there were two familiar dwarven heads: one dark, one light. He frowned. He was certain Fili and Kili didn’t have a deceptive bone in their bodies, mischievous ones but not deceptive, so what on Arda could the two be whispering about so far from where the other members of the Company were working. Curiosity aroused, Bilbo decided not to announce his presence just yet, instead he simply listened.

“What are we gonna do Fee? I can’t fight against the elves, what if Tauriel’s there?!” Kili's whisper held notes of despair and uncertainty, a far cry from the usually merry tone of his voice.

“Yes because your love life is really what’s at stake here Kili! Not the fact we’re hopelessly outnumbered and Uncle’s going mad!” It was not hard for Bilbo to hear the young Dwarf's genuine fear beneath his sarcasm.

Kili scoffed in response, “Oh like you’re so ready to pick up an axe! I’m sure you’re not at all worried about a certain human. Perhaps going by the name Sigrid….?” Expertly dodging a hit to the head, Kili stopped talking, an unusually solemn look on his face. “But seriously Fee, what can we do? We came on this quest for adventure, not to start a war!”

“I know, I know. But what can we do? Thorin’s our King and our Uncle, to act against him would be treason.”

“But it’s not right!” Kili whispered furiously, “You heard him at Laketown. He promised those people gold. We don’t break our word Fili. It was Uncle who taught us that. And what about all the people that died because of us? Innocent people. I’m-I’m starting to think that maybe we should never have left the Blue Mountains.”

Fili threw an arm around his brother, “Oh Kee, if we hadn’t have left, you’d never have met your Elf and I rather like seeing you act like a love struck idiot. Although the idiot part isn't exactly new”

Bilbo could see that Fili’s light words were at odds with his own heavy expression and his heart went out to the two young Dwarrows but Fili was right. What could they do? Unless……Stepping forward; Bilbo cleared his throat, enjoying the twin expressions of shock on the Dwarves’ faces.

“Mahal’s beard Bilbo! Where did you come from?” Kili squeaked.

“Hmmm, Gandalf knew what he was doing when he picked a Hobbit as your burglar you know. Anyway, never mind that. I think I may have a solution to our problem. Now, it’s probably not a very good one,” In fact Bilbo wasn’t very certain his plan had any merit at all, just thinking about what it entailed made him queasy, “but it’s the only one I’ve got. Will you help?”

Fili and Kili shared a look before turning back to the Hobbit in front of them.

“Tell us more.”

 

Dale

Much to the Elven king’s dismay, Thranduil and Bard never did get to indulge in any ‘other activities’ that night, -the blame for which he was squarely placing on the ill-timed arrival of one very meddlesome wizard.

Mithrandir had come striding into his tent, seemingly uncaring of the guards’ protests or Thranduil’s own privacy, when Bard himself had only arrived moments earlier and they’d barely even had time to talk. Of course, the Valar-damned wizard and Bard were old friends and the two appeared very happy to see each other, exclaiming in surprise and embracing. Thranduil meanwhile simply glared, not that Mithrandir seemed to notice.

And then, inevitably, came the doom laden warning which wizards were so famed for.

“You must set aside your petty grievances with the Dwarves. War is coming. The cesspits of Dol Guldur have been emptied. You’re all in mortal danger.”

Thranduil couldn’t help but roll his eyes. It seemed wizards never changed. But even if he was quick to dismiss Mithrandir, Bard was not.

“What are you talking about?”

Thranduil sighed, he couldn’t encourage this. If you listened to every macabre prophecy Mithrandir came out with, your life would be a very depressing one indeed. The king couldn’t see why Bard hadn’t realised this about the wizard before if they claimed to be friends.

“I can see you know nothing of wizards. They are like winter thunder on a wild wind, rolling in from a distance breaking hard in alarm. But sometimes a storm is just a storm.” Thranduil watched with amusement as Mithrandir fought to contain his obvious exasperation.

“Not this time. Armies of Orcs are on the move. These are fighters, they have been bred for war. Our enemy has summoned his full strength.”

Thranduil snorted derisively, “Why show his hand now?”

The wizard whirled, power creeping into his voice as he paced towards Thranduil.

“Because we forced him. We forced him when the company of Thorin Oakenshield set out to reclaim their homeland. The Dwarves were never meant to reach Erebor, Azog the Defiler was sent to kill them. His master seeks control of the Mountain, not just for the treasure within, but for where it lies, its strategic position. This is the gateway to reclaiming the lands of Angmar in the North. If that fell Kingdom should rise again Rivendell, Lórien, the Shire, even Gondor itself will fall.”

Thranduil couldn't help but notice that the wizard seemed to have little care for his own realm or that of Dale but still had to admit, it was an impressive speech, made all the more so by the authority with which it was delivered. It was so easy to dismiss Mithrandir as an eccentric old man, motivated by odd whims, but Thranduil knew him to be much more-had seen the power he could yield and could feel an inkling of it now. But Thranduil was no mere elfling to be intimidated and so he sat sprawled languidly on his throne and smirked.

“These Orc armies you speak of, Mithrandir, where are they?”

Silence met his question.

“Ah, so you would have me what? Assemble my army to fight an enemy who you seem to have misplaced. Who probably doesn’t even exist? Oh of course, Mithrandir, right away.” Thranduil’s voice was filled with such disdain it could have withered trees, but really, what did the wizard expect?

Before Gandalf could retort, he was interrupted by a surprising support for his plea.

“He is right Thranduil.” Both elf and wizard’s attention snapped to Bard whose own focus seemed to be concentrated elsewhere. It was clear to Thranduil that at the moment, Bard was more wraith than man. His form had grown less clear, appearing to waver, a clear sign he was walking in the twilight realm of the wraiths although his body was still present. Further, a darkness seemed to emanate from him, filling the room with a terrible power. And then, in the blink of an eye, he was Bard again with no sign of anything other to be seen.

“My friend, what have you found?” Gandalf asked urgently and that was interesting mused Thranduil. The wizard showed no surprise at Bard’s true nature and yet, if he’d known, he should by rights have informed the White Council and even if Thranduil was not part of it (a snub which still infuriated him) they would have been hard pressed to keep Bard’s existence a secret from the other powers of Middle-Earth. What reasons did the wizard have to keep this secret? Did Mithrandir doubt the Council? Or was it simply out of loyalty to Bard?

Side-lining this train of thought, Thranduil listened, his heart growing heavy to what Bard had tell to them.

“I wandered far in the shadow-world and I have no good news. Darkness covers these lands once more and I sensed a large Orc army on the move. They approach from the north, from Gundabad, but where exactly they are I cannot tell–their presence is hidden from me to some extent which is troubling-but I can say their force is large.” Bard’s tone was solemn, his face grim and at his words, there was no triumph at being right in Mithrandir’s eyes, but rather, he seemed overcome by weariness. 

Pushing aside the dark memories which threatened to overwhelm him upon hearing of Gundabad’s revival, Thranduil stood swiftly and began to pace.

“Well then, we will need to act quickly. Feren must be fetched, scouts sent out, the Dwarves…the Dwarves must be…” Thranduil’s mind was racing with all that would need to be done and he couldn’t think straight. The mention of Gundabad had unsettled him more than he thought and the Elf felt his breathing begin to come in short, erratic bursts.

He was startled out of his panic by gentle hands catching his own and warm brown eyes looking into his.

"Breathe with me Thran, in, out, in, out..." Thranduil matched his breathing to Bard's and soon calm coursed through him once more. Closing his eyes, Thranduil let out a slow breath and then opened hem again to find Bard still close, wearing an expression of such tenderness that Thranduil felt like he might cry.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered.

Bard’s expression turned to one of confusion, “What for?”

Thranduil pulled away, not able to look at the dragonslayer. “For being weak. For losing control. For-“ Bard caught his arm, pulling the elf sharply round to face him.

“Don’t ever think you’re weak Thran. Not ever. I know Gundabad is where your wife died and you’re wrong if you think it is a weakness for the reminder to upset you. It is never wrong to care. Never.” Bard’s tone was fierce, his grip on Thranduil hard and the Elven King couldn’t help but hear the truth in his words. Finally, Thranduil brought his gaze to meet Bard’s once more.

“And I here I was thinking it was the Elves who were supposed to be wise.”

Bard relaxed slightly, smiling. “Aye, perhaps the Elves of Lorien and Imladris but of Mirkwood? No, I have heard they are less wise and more dangerous, or so they say.”

Thranduil laughed at that. “You know, I could have you thrown in my dungeons for such a comment.”

Bard grinned, “You could, but then you’d just be proving my point.” Closing the distance between them, Thranduil brought his lips near to Bard’s so they were close but not quite touching.

“You have grown bold, dragonslayer.” Thranduil felt rather than saw the man’s answering smile.

“Hmmm...I have, have I? Perhaps that will explain this” and with that, Bard closed the minute distance between them, softly kissing the Elven King and allowing his hands to tangle in long silken hair.

Managing to pull back just long enough to check that yes, Mithrandir was no longer in the tent, Thranduil deepened the kiss, turning it from sweet and chaste to a filthy clash of tongues and teeth. He was rewarded with a gasp from Bard and soon found himself being pushed further into the tent, towards his bed. A turn of events, he was not at all displeased with.

Bard had just been in the process of kissing his way down the elegant column of Thranduil’s neck when they were interrupted by a sharp cough. Startled, Bard whipped around, halting his exploration of the pale perfect skin-to Thranduil’s immense displeasure-to find Gandalf had returned. Of course it would be Mithrandir again thought Thranduil sourly.

“I hate to interrupt,” the merry twinkle in his eyes told a different story, “But I may have found a way for you to deal with the Dwarves, or rather, it has found you.” Thranduil rolled his eyes at the typically cryptic statement.

“Oh really?” He feigned interest whilst really wishing the meddlesome wizard would just leave again so he and Bard could resume their more enjoyable activities.

“Yes. In the form of a Mr. Bilbo Baggins.”

The tent flap was then pushed aside once more to allow a considerably smaller figure to enter. A Hobbit if Thranduil could believe his eyes. Moving to stand by Bard, Thranduil studied the Halfling. He seemed nervous, fiddling with something in his pocket and looking at the floor and yet....the Elf got the impression the Hobbit was braver than many would give him credit for.

“If I am not mistaken, this is the Halfling who stole the keys to my dungeons from under the nose of my guards.” Thranduil’s voice was perhaps sterner than he intended for the Hobbit fidgeted even more, his eyes moving from the floor only to start darting round the room.

“Errrrrrrm. Yes. Sorry about that.”

Amused, Thranduil smirked at his discomfort, causing Bard to shoot him a disapproving glare. Thranduil shrugged in response although his attention soon snapped back to the Hobbit.

“I came to give you this.” Disbelievingly, Thranduil watched as the Halfling preceded to pull a jewel which shone with it’s own pale light out of his pocket. The Arkenstone.

Sighing tiredly at this new development, Thranduil shot a mournful look behind him. They had never even made it to the bed.

Chapter Text

After the unexpected arrival Bilbo, Bard, Thranduil, Gandalf and Feren-whom had been summoned-had stayed late into the night discussing what to do. It had been decided that with the new threat of the orcs, the situation with the dwarves needed to be resolved as swiftly as possible and that plan proposed by Bilbo seemed the best way to do this. If anything could persuade Thorin Oakenshield to give in, it would be the Arkenstone.

When Bard finally exited Thranduil’s tent, he was tired and wanted nothing more than to find and hug his children before collapsing into a bed. Any bed. It need not even be a bed in fact as long as there was a blanket and somewhere to rest his head, Bard would be happy. He needed rest.

He did not know what the morning would bring. The optimistic part of him wanted to believe that the Arkenstone would prove to be an effective bargaining tool and Thorin would see sense. Then, perhaps he and his kin could be persuaded to help them fight off the new threat from the north and peace would rule once more. Dale would be rebuilt and Thranduil and he would have time to explore what was happening between them.

But...that part of him was small. The larger part, the part that had been hardened by the suffering that was all too common in the world, whispered that the gold sickness would not easily give up its hold on Thorin. That even if it did, the orc army Bard had sensed would still bring death and destruction and that even if they were defeated, there was still a deeper darkness was growing in the world. Nothing was certain, he only knew that whatever the dawn brought, he would need all his strength to face it.

Sighing, he began walking back towards the ruin of Dale and his no doubt sleeping children. But before he could get more than a hundred metres, he was stopped by a shout of his name. Looking back, he saw Bilbo was hurrying to catch up with him.

“Good evening Master Baggins. I thought you were set on returning to the mountain?” Bard did not necessarily agree with the Hobbit’s decision but he could at least admire his loyalty.

“Oh I am. I know they’re being a little difficult right now but well...they’re my friends and I could never abandon them,” said Bilbo with a helpless shrug. Bard nodded although, truth be told, he rather thought it wasn’t simple friendship that lay between Bilbo and the Dwarven King.

“Anyway, Fili gave me something for your daughter Sigrid and I wonder if I could give it to you to pass along? If it’s not too much trouble that is?”

“Ah, so he knows about your plan does he?”

Bilbo nodded quickly in response. “It was him and Kili who helped me out of the mountain. They ahhh...don’t exactly agree with Thorin’s decision,” Bilbo explained.

Bard smiled kindly, “Good to know and of course, I am happy to pass anything along.” The Hobbit beamed up at him.

“Thank you. You know, I really think he’s smitten.”

Bard laughed, “Sigrid too. I’m not quite sure what to think. It seems only yesterday that she thought all boys were ‘yucky’”. Bilbo laughed at that too and then handed over a letter with Sigrid’s name on it, written in a neat and cursive hand. Having fulfilled his task, Bilbo turned to go but Bard stopped him with a hand on his shoulder. Looking down at the Halfling, Bard couldn’t help but notice how small and vulnerable he looked.

“Are you sure returning to Erebor is wise? I cannot imagine Thorin will take the loss of the Arkenstone well and I would hate to see you hurt.” But Bilbo would not be persuaded to stay and so Bard watched him go, heart heavy and hoping the brave Hobbit would be alright.

Turning once more towards Dale, Bard saw another familiar figure, this one far taller, and knew rest would have to be put off a bit longer. Being in Bilbo’s presence again had reminded him of something.

“Gandalf! A word?” He called. Bard waited as the wizard approached, same old half smile on his face and twinkle in his eyes.

“Ah Bard, it is good to see you again old friend, although I wish it were under better circumstances.’ He looked tired for a moment but then smiled slyly, “Much would I like to hear how you have come to know Thranduil so ahem...intimately.”

Shaking his head, Bard gave the wizard a rueful smile, “There is not much to tell, not yet, as it is a recent development. But I am glad for the elves’ presence in general although it has led to more people knowing my true nature than I am quite comfortable with.”

Gandalf’s raised an eyebrow, “The King did not seem to mind. I think perhaps you are over-fearful of peoples’ reactions. But this is an old argument my friend, one we’ve had too many times, so come, what did you want to tell me.”

“More bad news I’m afraid.” Bard sighed and shot a glance in the direction Bilbo had gone. “I’m not sure how much Master Baggins had time to tell you but tonight was not the first time we met. It was I who brought the Company to Laketown and of course, him along with them. For the most part, I found him pleasant company but something troubled me, at the time I was not sure what and once their true purpose here was revealed I had little time to figure it out. Then of course, Smaug was awoken and the matter was pushed from my mind. But tonight I had cause to remember and I believe I have put my finger on it. The Hobbit carries something dark Gandalf, something dark and very powerful. I cannot say for certain what it may be and there are many dark things in this world...but there is something familiar about this particular darkness, something reminiscent of the one who made me.”

The night was dark and overcast, clouds dulling the moon’s light and blocking the stars but Bard’s vision was still sharp and he could easily discern the weariness that stole over Gandalf’s face. Weariness and resignation and yet still the wizard asked, “Are you sure? Could you not be mistaken?”

Shaking his head, Bard spoke low and fast unwilling to be overheard. “I am sure you’re aware that darkness threatens Middle-Earth once more. I told you long ago of the nature of my creation but you dismissed any notion of Sauron’s return. But now the Greenwood is threatened and from tonight we know that the orcs amass in greater numbers than they have in a long time. There are also troubling rumours from the south Gandalf, they say the watch on the Black Gate has fallen. If true, then it is no longer possible to deny that Mordor is occupied once more.” Gandalf had closed his eyes as Bard spoke, as if by doing so, it would make what he said untrue.

They were both quiet for a while. Then, “I also sensed a great disturbance the other night, near Dol Goldur. A great battle was fought was it not? And I would hazard that you were there, and that was why you were not with the company.”

Gandalf did not answer at first but then, “Yes.”

“Tell me”

Leaning heavily on his staff, Gandalf told of what the White Council had found and of Galadriel’s victory over Sauron’s spirit before he fell into silence once more. Both contemplated the implications of his words.

Bard eventually spoke. “I tried to tell you that it was no mere necromancer who resided in that evil place but you would not listen. Truth be told though, I find no joy in being right.” Bard sighed, “The Lady may have triumphed this time but we both know it was not a true victory. Sauron’s fate is tied to his ring and now that it may have been found....Gandalf, if the ring falls into his hands, Middle Earth will fall into shadow.”

Gandalf stirred, drawing himself up and turned to Bard. “We do not yet know what Bilbo carries. It may not be the ring and I pray that it is not but even if it is, the future is not something that is certain. Whilst the days ahead may be dark, it will pass as all darkness does,” his half smiled returned, “and anyway, I believe we are getting ahead of ourselves, we cannot worry about such things when we may not even survive the morrow.”

Bard could not help but chuckle. The humour of wizards could be black and dark but it still amused him. “Aye, you are right my friend.”

“It is a tendency of mine. Now, I will bid you goodnight as you appear to be in need of some rest.” Bard agreed vehemently and they parted ways, both with much to think on.

Not wishing to be stopped again, Bard hurried, soon entering Dale and quickly headed towards the derelict house he and his family had claimed for themselves. It was considerably larger than their house had been in Laketown and though Bard had forbidden any exploration of the second floor, worried about the structural integrity, the lower level was sufficiently spacious for them. There was no glass in the windows and the wooden doors had either been burnt by Smaug’s fire or had rotted away but the roof seemed largely undamaged, the walls too and all in all, Bard considered it a perfectly fine shelter. If Dale was rebuilt, the house would probably make more than a fine home

Walking through the entrance, down the hall and into what must once have functioned as a reception room, Bard located two of his children and one familiar elf. Galion had fallen asleep on a nest of blankets bracketed by Tilda and Bain. It made for a rather adorable sight. Feeling something in himself ease, Bard deduced that the elf must have been looking after his children and that they obviously got along, which made him very happy. Galion had once been a large part of his life and now that Galion knew the truth, Bard hoped he would be so again-the elf was genuinely like a father to him and Bard had missed him terribly.

Kneeling, Bard pressed a swift kiss to each of his children’s temple, tucking the blankets slightly tighter around them. He stayed a moment, letting his eyes drift over the sleeping trio fondly before he stood. He had a missing daughter to find.

In the end, Sigrid wasn’t far. She was in fact just down the hall in what had probably been the kitchen. A surprisingly intact table occupied the centre of the room and his daughter was sat at it sharpening a wicked looking long knife-just like he’d taught her. Standing in the doorway, Bard cast a critical eye over his eldest child. He was struck-just like he had earlier when talking to Bilbo-by the fact she wasn’t a child anymore. Perhaps not quite an adult proper, but definitely not a child either. He also noticed she looked tired, too tired thought Bard.

He padded over and took the seat across from her, “Hey darlin’. ”

Sigrid had been so absorbed by her task that the voice of her father startled her, but a genuine wide smile soon took over her face.

“Da! I wasn’t sure I’d see you tonight, Galion said you and King Thranduil had a lot to talk about.” It could have been Bard’s imagination, but he was almost sure there was a hint of slyness in his daughter’s tone. Either way, he chose to ignore it.

“Aye, we did,” Bard said.

“And? What news?” Something in his expression must have been dark because Sigrid suddenly slumped, placing the knife down on the table and sighing. “It’s not good, is it?”

Bard wished he could reassure her. Wished it with all of his heart but his daughter was strong and brave and she deserved the truth, so that’s what he told her. When he’d finished recounting the day’s events, Bard leant back in the chair, studying Sigrid. She looked pensive.

“So basically, the Dwarves still refuse to give us our gold or even come out of their mountain but we’re not technically at war with them yet although depending on what happens tomorrow, we could be soon and there’s also a large orc army heading straight for us?”

Bard hesitated and then nodded. “But don’t forget, not all the Dwarves feel the way Thorin does. Fili certainly doesn’t.”

Sigrid looked sad, “He can’t exactly do much when his uncle is gripped with gold sickness though can he?”

“He’s trying though Sig and that’s what matters. After all, he did help get Bilbo out of the mountain. And here,” reaching into his coat, Bard pulled out the letter Bilbo had given him, “this is for you, from him.”

He didn’t watch as she read the letter, as whatever lay between her and the Dwarven prince was a private matter and it was for his daughter to decide what she wished to tell him. Instead he waited quietly, studying the table in front of him. It wasn’t until he heard a quiet gasp from Sigrid that he looked up, curious.

His daughter must have finished reading the letter, for it lay on the table. Her attention was instead on an object in her hand which Bard immediately focussed his attention on also, for what Sigrid held was some beads, four of them to be precise. On each bead was a rune of which only one was identifiable to Bard-the mark of Durin.

Raising an eyebrow, Bard observed ‘Fili certainly wastes no time’. His voice was coloured by surprise. He had guessed of the attraction between the two but not that it was so strong for, whilst Bard may have been more familiar with the ways of elves, he was also acquainted with those of Dwarves and knew that these were betrothal beads that his daughter held. Sigrid knew this also.

“He says that I am his One,” she whispered, still staring at the beads in her palm, “And he offers me his heart. He says that he knows we have not known each other long but that he knows there will never be another for him, for this is the way of Dwarows: to love but once and to love deeply.”

Bard frowned. He could not help but think Fili had placed a lot of pressure upon his daughter. Noticing his disapproval Sigrid shook her head. “He says that he understands if I cannot accept his proposal, whether because I do not feel the same or as strongly just yet, or because of the tension between our peoples but explains that it is because of this uncertainty that he had to act, for he did not wish for something to happen to either of us without me knowing of his feelings.”

Slightly appeased that Fili was not trying to pressure Sigrid into anything (not that Bard believed Sigrid would ever allow herself to be pressured in such away), he stood up, stretching as he did so. “I’ll leave you to think. But don’t stay up too much longer, you will need to be sharp tomorrow.” He went to his daughter and leant down to pull her into a tight hug. “Know that whatever you decide, you have my support.”

Sigrid smiled, “Thanks, Da.” Giving her a final squeeze, Bard turned and left the kitchen, feeling all his earlier exhaustion returning to him as he did so.

Sigrid remained at the table, she knew it would not be long before she went to bed, for she already knew her decision. Her heart was Fili’s, as his was hers. Sigrid had known this from their first meeting, although she had not told her father this, just as she not told him what the other three runes meant, though she knew from Fili’s letter.

The prince had described how a Dwarven proposal usually followed a lengthy courtship, involving twelve gifts, each more impressive and demonstrating a deeper knowledge of the beloved than the last. However, obviously that was impossible here, and furthermore, would probably not mean as much to Sigrid as she was not a Dwarf. The proposal itself was a more simple affair, where the asker offered a bead ,inscribed with the mark of their House, to their beloved. If the proposal was accepted, the bead was woven into the beloved’s hair, usually into a braid where it was easily seen, so as to make the betrothal obvious.

And it was such a bead that Fili offered Sigrid. However, he had also offered her three more, each engraved with a rune that he believed described a fundamental aspect of her personality: her strength, her courage and her empathy. For he wished to demonstrate that though they did not have a traditional courtship, that did not mean that he did not know and understand her.

This knowledge coursed through Sigrid, filling her with warmth and happiness and determination. Determination that this stupidity caused by gold sickness would not keep them separated. Determination that no one would keep her Dwarf from her. Determination that they would get their happy ending.

Carefully, she began to braid her hair. When she had finished, she had gathered most of her hair into a tight braid down her back. However, her face was framed by two others, and on each of their ends hung two of the beads, signifying her answer.

Her decision could not have been more sure, or more obvious.

Chapter Text

Bard smiled smugly as his arrow once again found its mark in the centre of the target. Turning towards Legolas, he raised a single eyebrow in challenge. In reply, the elf inclined his head in acknowledgement of the shot before raising his own bow and, keeping his face towards Bard’s, fired an arrow which hit his target dead centre. Never once had his stare left Bard’s.

Scowling, Bard mumbled something about pointy-eared show offs, causing Legolas to laugh- a beautiful sound which rang loud in the quiet training grounds.

“Don’t be upset, mellon.” Legolas’ tone took on a teasing edge, “After all, it is no shame to lose to the best archer in the Greenwood.”

Bard scoffed. “I’m telling Tauriel you said that and no, I won’t help you hide when she decides to turn you into an elf shaped pin cushion.”

Paling slightly, Legolas wisely decided to correct himself. “Fine, there is no shame in losing to the second best archer in the Greenwood.”

“Well anyway, the point is moot for you haven’t beaten me yet.” And with that, Bard swiftly knocked another arrow and this time, aimed for the target Legolas had been shooting at. He let the arrow fly and then whooped when it hit, splitting Legolas’ arrow in two.

“Beat that, princeling!”

It was Legolas’ turn to scowl. However, before their competition could continue, they were interrupted by a deep voice behind them.

“That was an impressive shot, Bard.”

Turning, both Legolas and Bard offered Thranduil a bow which the king waved away with a dismissive hand. He then turned his attention to Bard.

“Your mastery of the bow is impressive. However, no matter how skilled an archer one is, there are circumstances where a bow is simply not a suitable weapon. I hope your skills with a blade a progressing as well Bard?”

Bard shot a quick look at Legolas. “Uh, I’ve never practiced with a sword Your Majesty.”

Frowning, Thranduil looked at his son for an explanation. “I know your preferred weapon is the bow ion, but you are not unskilled with a sword, did you not think to teach Bard?”

Legolas shrugged, a decidedly un-elvish action which he had picked up from the human child. “I am sorry ada. In my defence, Bard never showed any interest in learning.” Bard frowned and made to protest but the prince sent him a quelling look.

Thranduil stood in thought for a moment...it had been a long time since he had last been in the role of teacher. Thinking for a moment longer, he made up his mind.

“Due to my son’s oversight in this matter, it is only right that I offer my services instead. I will confirm with Galion but I believe I should be able to clear some time in the evenings. We shall meet here every second day an hour before sun down.” His expression turned stern as he looked at Bard. “Do not be late.”

Then, Thranduil turned and left the training grounds, his stride long and graceful. Once Bard was sure the elvenking was out of earshot, he looked curiously at Legolas.

“I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve asked you to teach me how to wield a sword, and how many times you’ve refused.

“72 times,” said Legolas cheerfully.

Bard just continued to stare at him. “You planned this, didn’t you?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” sing-songed Legolas, adopting a faux innocent expression. “If my father, who is a far better swordsman than I by the way, sees fit to teach you because I forgot, then that’s his choice.”

“Well, I’m going to thank you anyway.”

Legolas smiled. “Shall we get back to our competition? Where were we again? Oh yes, I believe I was bout to teach you a lesson in humility.”

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It was mid morning and Thranduil was stood staring at Erebor. Behind him, he could hear the noises that were typical of an army preparing for war: the shouts of captains issuing orders, the scree of a blade being sharpened and the light padding of innumerable foot steps as elves ran to and fro. It was a long time since his people had gone to war this way.

He turned slightly at the sound of someone’s approach. It was Bard, dressed for war in dark leather armour, hair pulled back and with twin swords strapped across his back. Thranduil himself was attired similarly, except his armour gleamed silver and was of the finest elvish make. He ran his hand down Bard’s chest. The leather seemed so flimsy. So inadequate.

“There’s no need to look so worried, its tougher than it feels and has seen me through many a skirmish. Besides, you taught me well and coupled with my...ah...unique abilities, no orc will touch me,” promised Bard.

Thranduil frowned and returned his attention to Erebor.

“This will be no mere skirmish. It will be all out battle.” He sighed. “I did not expect this when I decided to come to the aid of Laketown. Many lives will be lost today.”

Coming to stand by the elven king, Bard let Thranduil lean into him slightly. “Not as many as could have been. Our plan is a good one.”

The strategizing that had kept them up well into the night had indeed resulted in a sound battle plan. A third of Thranduil’s force were to remain in the ruins of Dale to protect the inhabitants, along with all the survivors of Laketown who could wield a weapon. So too were his healers remaining behind. They had not been idle when news of the approaching orc army had spread through the camp and had set up several tents ready for the casualties. The rest of Thranduil’s army would march on Erebor where Bard would bargain for Thorin’s aid with the Arkenstone. Even should this aid not be given, it had been decided the elves would make their stand on the plains before Erebor. Archers would be stationed on the mountain’s ridges to fell the ranks of orcs as they approached from the north and the geography would work as a sort of bottle neck, meaning the orcs’ numerical advantage was weakened. Bard was right, it was a good plan. But Thranduil could not help but wonder how many of his elves would lay dead come nightfall. Then he paused.

“The earth trembles, I can feel it, the result of thousands of feet marching for war.”

“The orcs? So soon?” Bard queried, dismayed.

“Not yet I think. Dwarves. It seems you were right, Dain is hurrying to his cousin’s aid.” Shaking his head, Thranduil snorted, a rather inelegant action that earned him a raised eyebrow from Bard.

“What?”

“It is just, I never thought I would be grateful for the impending arrival of a Dwarven army.”

“You think they will fight with us then?”

“When it comes to Dain, there is one thing that you can be certain of, he will not spill elvish blood when he can spill that of orcs.”

“Some good news at last.” Bard was silent for a moment, then he turned to Thranduil, his expression serious but warm, only affection in his eyes. It made Thranduil’s heart beat faster. “You truly do not need to worry about me. Wraiths are hard to kill, especially ones trained by master elven swordsmiths.”

Thranduil smirked, stepping close to Bard until they were almost touching, “Resorting to flattery, Dragonslayer?” He pitched his voice low and was rewarded when Bard’s breath hitched in response.

Somewhere behind them came the sound of someone shifting. Reluctantly pulling away, Thranduil turned to see an elf looking decidedly awkward, gaze fixed on the ground.

“My Lord Thranduil, I am sorry to intrude but General Feren bid me tell you the army is ready to march and is awaiting your command.”

Thranduil nodded. “Thank you, Cirian. You may return to your post.” Cirian bowed and left, not quite scurrying but it was a close thing. Thranduil turned back to Bard who was wearing an amused smile. He captured one of Thranduil’s hands in his and pulled him close once more, gently resting his forehead against the king’s.

“One day, there will be no meddling wizards or impending threat to interrupt us and we shall have all the time in the world to do this properly. So be safe Thranduil, please, because I desperately want that day to come.”

“Do not worry, Bard, I have lived through many battles and I will survive this one, for I wish for that day also.”

Bard smiled, pressed a chaste kiss to Thranduil’s lips, the simple action creating a warm feeling in Thranduil’s chest, and then pulled away. Thranduil could not help but wonder at the emotions that this man had inspired in him in such a short time. Happiness, warmth, affection...perhaps even love. He ached at the thought that, despite Bard’s reassurances, he could lose it all in the coming battle.

“Thran?” Bard’s gentle voice coaxed him out of his dark thoughts and he realised he must have missed something Bard had said. Then he realised something else.

“What did you just call me?!”

Bard raised an eyebrow, grinning. “Don’t you like it?”

Thranduil spluttered. “No I most certainly do not. No one has ever dared shorten my name before and no one is going to start. No one.” His icy blue eyes glared at Bard. The man himself didn’t appear particularly affected.

Adopting an innocent look, Bard said, “Well, Thran, think of it as an incentive to stop using that ridiculous Dragonslayer title.”

Thranduil scowled.

“Anyway, I was saying that I need to go find my children, make sure they’re safe and then I’ll join you at the head of the army.”

Thranduil nodded, “Very well.” Then, as Bard turned an strode back towards the camp, Thranduil noticed something strange about the blades he wore across his back.

No, they cannot be...surely he wouldn’t...

“Bard, those swords are of Dwarvish make, aren’t they?” The man’s only answer was a light chuckle that simultaneously infuriated Thranduil and made him feel light and warm-feelings the Dragonslayer seemed to inspire in him often.

Unfortunately, the pleasant feelings soon faded as he too headed into the camp where he surveyed his army. They were replaced by deep sorrow and cold determination. Sorrow for he knew that by nightfall, not all of the elves assembled would still be alive and determination that not one elf would die today that didn’t have to. Thranduil would make sure of it and Valar help any orc that got in his way.

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Bard knelt in front of his youngest on the steps leading the ruined house they’d commandeered for themselves. Tilda had been waiting for him when he’d arrived, her siblings presumably still inside. Her usual bright smile was absent and there was a fear in her eyes Bard had never seen before.

“You’ll come back, won’t you Da?” Her small voice almost broke his heart.

“Of course darlin’.”

“And King Thranduil too?”

“Him as well. I promise.”

Tilda nodded, “Good. And then we’ll all go live with him in the forest like you used to and you and him will get married and everyone will be happy again.”

Bard smiled at his daughter. There was no doubt in her voice, no hesitation in her face. “You’ve got it all planned out I see,” Tilda nodded again. “Well, it might not happen exactly like that, me and Thran haven’t really discussed what will happen next and no one will be getting married quite just yet, but we’ll see. And I’m sure everyone will be very happy.”

Privately, Bard had his own worries about what the future held, his suspicions about what the Hobbit carried and his conversation with Gandalf not far from his mind, but his daughter looked reassured and that’s what mattered.

“Now then, where are your brother and sister hmmmm?”

As if summoned, Bain and Sigrid appeared in the doorway, making their way down the steps followed by Galion. Bard’s eye caught on his eldest. Sigrid was attired similarly to him- in fighting leathers worn over a dark tunic and leggings- but a bow hung in place across her back instead of swords and two wicked long knives-the ones she’d been sharpening last night-hung at her belt. What stood out to Bard though, were the two new braids that framed her face, neat, perfect and finished with two distinctly Dwarven beads, a clear declaration of her intent.

Bard nodded to himself at her decision. He may not have liked the swiftness of Fili’s proposal but understood the motivation behind it. He would not disrespect his daughter by doubting her response. Instead, he was more concerned about what her attire signified.

“I don’t suppose I could convince you to stay here?”

Sigrid shook her head. “I’m coming with you Da.”

Bard didn’t know whether to sigh or smile. His Sigrid was far too brave for her own good. “I knew I’d regret teaching you to fight but I won’t stop you. You stay close to me though, understand? I want you by my side at all times.”

Sigrid raised an eyebrow, “As if I’d be anywhere else.”

Moving his attention to Bain, Bard pressed a dagger into his son’s hand. “Remember your lessons?” His son nodded, “Good. I hope you don’t have to use this, I really do, but if necessary, you protect yourself and Tilda.” He looked at Bain a little longer, remembering the events of a few nights prior and added, “I’m so proud of you Bain and I’m sure anyone who can handle a dragon like you did will make short work of any orcs.” That got the smile he was looking for.

Finally, Bard moved on to Galion who raised a hand, speaking before Bard could. “You don’t have to ask ion, I wasn’t planning on letting them out of my sight. I’ll keep them safe, don’t worry. They’ve grown on me rather quickly and I find myself willing to lay down my life to prevent harm coming to them.”

“Let’s hope it does not come to that.” Bard interjected quickly and Galion smiled slightly in response.

“Let’s. But if necessary, I will do so.”

Overcome, Bard was not sure what to say. Seeming to understand the man’s struggle, Galion spoke once more. “Just promise me ion that you will do everything in your power to come back safe. I have lost one child already, I thought I had lost you too, please do not put me through that again.” It was a plea straight from the heart, the grief Galion must have felt over the centuries colouring his voice and Bard could do nothing but pull the elf to him, wrapping his arms tightly around the man who had basically raised him and said-

“I promise ada, I will come back.”

Then he was letting go, stepping back and turning towards Bain and Tilda to pull them both into a similarly tight embrace. After a long moment, he let go, allowing Sigrid to take his place and watching sadly as she whispered her own goodbyes into her siblings’ ears,  gently prying her younger sister off her when it appeared Tilda did not want to let go.

Sigrid then turned to Galion, offering a traditional elvish bow which was returned along with a quiet sentence in Sindarin.

“Man faras nin hiril.”

And with that, Bard could delay no longer. It was time to go, to rejoin Thranduil and then to war. He could only hope that he could keep his promises but in war he knew, there were no certainties.

Chapter Text

Thranduil surveyed his army from atop Merellien. His elves gleamed in the morning sun, the pale light reflecting off their golden armour, which however extravagant it may look, had been crafted with practicality in mind as well as aesthetics. Light enough to allow for fluid movement but strong enough to turn aside many arrows and sword blows, Thranduil new it would serve his people well.

Still, no armour was impenetrable. Not even if it was crafted by elves, with all their millennia of experience of war. But Thranduil would not falter now. He could not abandon the survivors of Laketown, his conscience would not allow it, not when he still felt the guilt of his choices almost a century ago-when he had chosen to abandon the people of Dale and the Dwarves to dragon fire.

No matter how many times he had told himself the Dwarves had brought their fate on themselves with their greed. No matter that he had faced a dragon before in a battle that had cost him his wife, so many of his people and left him so deeply scarred both physically and mentally that he couldn’t bring himself to risk so much again. No matter that he had tried to make up for his choice by offering any survivors medicine, food, supplies and safe passage through Mirkwood. Thranduil still felt such remorse and guilt for that day that he knew he could not do the same again.

Casting his eyes over his army once again, Thranduil turned his faithful mount around to face towards Erebor. Feren, astride his own mount Roheryn, an extremely intelligent war horse, lingered on the King’s right.

“Shall I give the order to march?”

“Not yet. We wait for Bard. No doubt he is still saying farewell to his children.”

Thranduil noticed his general frowning slightly at Bard’s name. He knew Feren had not accepted Bard’s story as he and Galion had and hoped it would not become a problem in the future. Feren was a trusted friend, his general for more years than he cared to count but Thranduil was quickly coming to the realisation that Bard might be the one to hold his heart. It would not do for the two to be at odds.

As if summoned, Thranduil spotted Bard walking towards them leading his horse, Sigrid an unexpected presence at his side. Even more unexpected was that the girl was attired for war. As the two neared, Thranduil raised an eyebrow.

“I did not think it was the way of men to raise their women to fight.” Something Thranduil had always found exceedingly stupid.

“I think you’ll find me more capable than any man my age Lord Thranduil,” Sigrid answered firmly. Thranduil nodded, a slight smile on his face.

“Of that, I have no doubt.” Thranduil had already being impressed by the girl’s ability to organise and command when he first arrived. She’d been instrumental in directing where the elves’ help was most needed and had worked tirelessly alongside them. “Will you be needing a horse?”

Bard answered first. “She can have mine. I prefer not to ride into battle. Horses can be a bit skittish around me and it would be best if I did not have to worry about such distractions.”

“Very well.” As Sigrid busied herself with mounting her father’s horse. Thranduil turned once more to Feren. “There is one more thing before we march. A messenger needs to be sent to Dain’s army. They approach quickly and it would best if they were appraised of the situation before they arrive. As much as I am loathe to admit it, I believe we will have need of Dain’s army before the day is out.”

Feren nodded. “I will send my fastest rider.”

Sigrid chose that moment to interrupt. “Can I suggest that I be sent instead?” Both King and general turned to regard her. “It’s just, think about what you’re asking Dain to do. You’re asking him to not only ally himself with elves, a people who Dwarves have a lot of history with and not all of it good, but against a threat he has nothing but our word to trust actually exists, in a move which is probably going to be seen by Thorin, his cousin, as a betrayal. And you want to send an elf to convince him to do this?”

Thranduil sighed. His own thoughts had been filled with similar doubts. Feren looked at Sigrid curiously. “Why do you think you’re any more likely to succeed than one of my soldiers?”

Sigrid smiled. “Well I’m not an elf for one thing. And of course, I am engaged to Prince Fili.” Thranduil almost choked, looking wildly between Bard and his daughter, sure he had misheard.

“What?! When did this happen?”

Bard sighed, not at all happy at the reminder his daughter was basically all grown up now. “Only recently. Just last night in fact.”

“Hmmm. Considering this, I believe you are right Lady Sigrid. This could work to our advantage,” mused Feren. “I think we should send her.”

Thranduil looked to Bard who appeared conflicted. The man glanced up at his daughter, who sat tall and straight on her horse. “If you do this, I might not be able to find you before the fighting starts. You might even end up marching with the Dwarves. I don’t like the idea of us being separated.”

“I’ll be alright Da. Let me do this.”

Taking a deep breath, Bard nodded. “Ok darlin.’”

“Then we are agreed,” said Thranduil. “Very well then Sigrid, listen closely for here is what you must tell Dain.” The young woman gave him her full attention, committing what he said to memory and then gave a nod to show she understood. “And Sigrid? If you must, if Dain appears unwilling to commit, then tell him that King Thranduil begs him for aid.” The words seemed to pain the proud elven king but he would do anything, say anything, to ensure that they triumphed over the coming darkness and for that, he knew, the Dwarves would be necessary.

Sigrid inclined her head in assent before giving her father one last reassuring smile and then she was off, kicking her horse into a fast gallop eastward, the direction from which Dain would be marching. Bard watched her go, anxiety written plain on his face. Nudging Merellien forward so he stood next to the man, Thranduil tried to think of a way to alleviate his worry but could find no words. Despite the fact that his own child was millennia old, a seasoned warrior and accomplished archer, he still worried about Legolas- where he was and if he was ok- so he could empathise all too well. Instead of offering empty words of comfort, he motioned to Feren to give the command to march. A single horn blast sounded and then the army began to move.

“Come Bard, it is time we go. You may ride with me if you wish. Merellien is no easily spooked horse and an extra rider will be no hardship for him to carry.”

That drew a contemplative look from Bard. “I have to say, I have never ridden an elk before.”

“Well, there is a first time for everything.”

“Aye, I guess there is,” said Bard as he swung himself up behind Thranduil and drew his arms tight around the elf. Once he was comfortably seated, Thranduil tapped his mount’s sides gently and the elk immediately set off at a light run, his gait even and smooth, heading straight for Erebor.

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Dain, Lord of the Iron Hills, sat astride his ram, Baraz, at the head of his army. The stomp of dwarrows’ feet behind him and the clangs of strong Dwarvish steel filling him with immense satisfaction. It had been a long time since he’d had an excuse to march to war and the thought of the coming battle filled him with anticipation. The fact it was going to be against the elves was an added bonus. He relished the opportunity to knock those poncy-fuckers down a peg or two. Maybe I’ll even get a shot at the smug bastard himself.

Dain was interrupted from his musings by Gilda, his most trusted captain who never strayed far from his side. “Look there My Lord, a rider.” Squinting in the direction she was pointing, the Dwarf-lord could just make out a dark blur heading for them, kicking up a large cloud of dust as they did so. He frowned.

“Thorin made no mention that he would be sending a rider. Although, maybe he managed to acquire a horse. Doesn’t seem right though.”

“Whoever it is, they’re travelling fast.” And indeed, the rider had covered much ground in the short while since they’d spotted them, already much closer than before.

“Get an archer in position,” Dain murmured to Gilda. “Better to be safe than sorry. You never know, maybe the tree-shaggers got wind of our coming.”

As his army continued to march, Dain could only wait and wonder about the identity of the rider as they moved closer and closer, making no move to change course even though they must have seen the Dwarves by this point. However, when they were finally close enough to distinguish their face, Dain could not disguise his surprise. Bringing his mount to a stop, Dain held a hand up and the clamour of his army behind him ceased as they too came to a halt. A short way in front of him, a young woman sat atop a horse, breathing hard from her ride, weapons strapped to every inch of her.

Gilda once more drew close to him. “An archer is ready to fire upon your signal.” Dain nodded to show he understood before spurring Baraz forward until the distance between him and the woman was small enough so they could talk comfortably without having to shout.

He’d always struggled to tell how old humans were but at this distance even Dain could see the rider was very young, perhaps only just passed her majority. But she held herself with a confidence he could admire and he could not deny that his curiosity was piqued. He was even more intrigued after she spoke.

“Vemu, Uzbad Dain.”

The guttural words were said with only passable pronunciation and a heavy accent but they were easily understood nevertheless. Dain raised his eyebrows.

“Well, you’ve either stolen forbidden knowledge of our language or have been privileged enough to be shown such trust by a dwarf they decided to teach you some of our ways. I’m not sure which one I should be hoping for.”

The woman smiled slightly, “It was neither. After it was decided I be sent here, my father, who has indeed spent much time amongst Dwarves, thought to teach me a simple greeting in the hope it might impress, and endear me to, you.”

“Ah, and who might your father be?”

“Lord Bard of Dale and I am his eldest child, Lady Sigrid.”

Dain waved a hand dismissively. “Dale is but a ruin. It has no ruling family. Not anymore.”

“I should explain. My family was originally from Laketown but that was before a company of Dwarves passed through, incurred the wrath of a dragon and failed to deal with it, instead leaving that task to my father. My town and its people were presumably seen as collateral damage by your cousin.” Sigrid’s voice was cold and sharp and Dain struggled to contain his wince. He had wondered why Thorin had made no mention of Smaug in his letter, had thought it odd that his cousin wasn’t boasting about slaying the dragon. Now he knew why. Before he could formulate a reply (and what exactly would he have said, sorry about Thorin, he can be a bit of an arsehole sometimes? Dain didn’t think that that really covered this situation), Sigrid continued. “But for the moment, that is not what is important. I have been sent with a message from my father and King Thranduil asking for your help.”

Dain snorted. “Right. If that supercilious bastard thinks I’m going to side with an elf against my own cousin, he’s even more delusional than I thought. Your father too.”

The girl shook her head, “We are not asking you to fight against Thorin. There is a much bigger threat, one that poses danger to us all. An orc army marches on the mountain.” Sigrid let her statement hang in the air for a moment, trying to get a read on the dwarf-lord opposite her. Dain was frowning but she tried to be encouraged by the fact he did not immediately dismiss her.

“I don’t suppose you have any proof of your claim?”

“None other than my word.”

Dain barked a short laugh. “I’m supposed to ally myself with elves and a man I have never met against an army I have no evidence actually exists? You must know what my answer is going to be lass.”

“Lord Dain, I assure you, I do not lie. A large force marches towards Erebor as we speak, death and destruction its only goal. Please, my people need you help and so do your family in the mountain. Do you think the orcs will be satisfied with laying waste only to the elves? No, they want Erebor and to wipe out the line of Durin once and for all.” Sigrid lent forward on her horse as she spoke, passion colouring every word and as Dain searched her face for falsehood, he could find only sincerity. Still, she was a stranger, he could not commit his army on the words of a young lass he had never met before.

“You speak well girl but don’t pretend to care about my kin in the mountain. You can’t expect me to believe Thranduil cares one whit about Erebor or anyone within. And if this threat is as grave as you say, why has Thorin not joined your alliance. He hates orcs more than most.”

“I think you let your prejudice colour your judgment. King Thranduil is neither as cruel nor as cold as you paint him to be and whilst he might not care for Thorin, I don’t believe he truly wants to see him dead. As for Thorin, he is in the grips of gold sickness. He does not listen to reason, not anymore, though my father and King Thranduil march to Erebor as we speak to try and make him see sense.”

Dain growled in frustration, his hands fisting around the reigns the held. What the girl said could so easily be true-Dain knew all too well the curse that lay upon his cousin’s line-but it could just as easily be elaborate lies designed to allow that pointy-eared princeling to claim Erebor’s wealth for his own. Sensing his indecision, Sigrid pressed him once again.

“I know I am asking a lot of you Lord Dain, but trust me when I say I want to protect those in the mountain as much as you, for I have a very personal stake in their survival.” As she spoke, Sigrid pulled two braids down from where they had been tucked behind her ears, Dain’s eyes tracking her every movement. He sucked in a shocked breath at what he saw.

“Mahal’s beard...” Riding forward, he brought his mount alongside Sigrid’s and reached up to gently examine one of the braids, his surprise only increasing at the marks he saw inscribed into the beads. “These are betrothal beads and this is the sign of Durin but they are not Thorin’s craftsmanship-he’s too old for you anyway,” Dain made a contemplative noise, “One of the princes then?”

“Fili. I am his One and he is mine.”

Dain nodded to himself. He could see how this girl with her quiet confidence and warrior’s posture would be a good match for the golden prince. Releasing the braid, he once more put some distance between them. This changed a lot. Dain could see the love and pride when Sigrid spoke Fili’s name, and knew that he could no longer feasibly doubt her words. Running a hand through the length of his beard, Dain looked back up at the girl.

“An orc army you say?”

Sigrid nodded soberly. “Exact numbers are unknown but it is undoubtedly large.”

Dain grinned wolfishly, “Well then what are we waiting for?” He turned to re-join his army, then paused, glancing back at the girl, one bushy eyebrow raised and grin still in place, “Will you be riding with us Lady Sigrid?”

A similarly wicked smiled graced the girl’s face. “If you’ll have me.” And she spurred her horse to ride alongside the Dwarf-Lord. Dain decided he liked this human girl-her boldness, her bravery. Oh yes, she’ll be perfect for Fili.

Once more at the head of his army, Dain motioned Gilda to him. His captain looked at Sigrid curiously and with more than a hint of distrust.

“This is Lady Sigrid of Dale, betrothed of Prince Fili,” he paused whilst Gilda struggled to contain her obvious surprise. Once he felt she’d had long enough to absorb this information, Dain continued, “There’s been a slight change of plans....”

....Dain watched from the front, Sigrid beside him, as the new orders went out and shook his head.

“By Mahal, never thought I’d see the day I’d willingly ally myself with the elves.” He remarked.

“If it helps, don’t think of it as an alliance with the elves, think of it as opportunity to kill some orcs.”

Throwing back his head, Dain laughed. “Ah girl, you’d make a good dwarf.” He addressed his army. “You here that boys? Today we’re going to bathe in orc blood!”

The dwarves roared and stomped their feet in approval.

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Under The Mountain...

Bilbo was fretting. He was supposed to be helping inventory the treasure-a task that was a good as indicator of Thorin’s madness as any. How he thought that thirteen Dwarves and one Hobbit could possibly count all this gold was beyond Bilbo-well really it was only thirteen Dwarves since Bilbo hadn’t actually done anything in quite a while. He was too busy fretting.

By the Valar he felt guilty. He’d taken the Arkenstone and given it to Thorin’s enemies! No, stop it. Thorin’s not in his right mind, Bilbo told himself, Fili and Kili agreed with me, it was the only course of action. I had no choice. He repeated this like a mantra, trying to alleviate his anxiety.

It didn’t work.

He wondered if Thorin would ever forgive him. Maybe it didn’t matter if he did or not. Bilbo had just been trying to find a way out of this situation which would ensure they’d all survive, and that had been before he’d even found out about the army of orcs that was on its way. So, if giving up the Arkenstone, if betraying-and that’s what it is, a betrayal, thought Bilbo- Thorin’s trust was what it took to keep him and the Company safe, then maybe it didn’t matter if Thorin ever forgave him. As long as he was alive, that’s all that mattered.

And maybe, just maybe, the loss of the Arkenstone would snap Thorin out of the gold sickness which had so warped his mind.

Feeling infinitesimally better about his night-time trip to the elven camp, Bilbo went back to sorting through the pile of gold in front of him. He’d just picked up an unidentifiable object and was trying to decide what possible purpose the ridiculously bejewelled thing could serve when Thorin swept into the hall. His dark, and to Bilbo’s eyes at least, impractical armour gave him an almost malevolent look that deeply unsettled the Hobbit.

“All of you with me. Now.”

Slowly, The Company all straightened up from where they’d been sorting through their respective piles of treasure.

Thorin’s eyes flashed dangerously. “Did you not hear me? I said NOW.” The last word was roared so loud that Bilbo winced. He caught Fili and Kili’s eyes and saw the same unease he felt reflected in them.

Thorin led them up onto the walls above Erebor’s entrance and Bilbo knew immediately what had the King so rattled. Bard and Thranduil had arrived and brought with them an elven army. It was quite the sight and even though Bilbo had known they were coming, was in fact partly why they were here, he couldn’t help but feel even more disquieted. All of his earlier doubts about the plan came rushing back.

As if sensing his fears, Fili and Kili came to stand beside him. Kili leant in close.

“We’re with you Bilbo. Whatever happens.”

Bilbo nodded and took a deep breath, trying to calm himself. Staring out over the battlements, his eyes caught on the figures of Thranduil and Bard. The two rode through the ranks of elves on the largest elk that Bilbo had ever seen, Bard’s arms wrapped tightly around the Elven King’s waist. Despite everything, Bilbo found himself thinking it was a cute sight. Thorin evidently did not agree, for as soon as they had reached the front and begun to climb the steps towards the entrance, he shot an arrow at their feet. Bilbo fought down the urge to laugh hysterically. He knew, just knew, that this was going to go terribly.

He was right.

Indeed, Bilbo watched as Thorin threatened the elf in charge of the army that could literally have them all stuck with arrows at the motion of a hand. Watched as Bard produced the stone only for Thorin to dismiss it as fake , refusing to see the truth in front of his very eyes. Watched and tried to find some trace of the Dwarf that had inspired him to leave his home on a fool’s quest, had inspired to him fall in love despite the fact Bilbo had never let a notion as fanciful as ‘true love’ distract him once in all of his fifty years.

He watched and could find no such traces. But love, he was finding, was not something you could simply choose not to feel. So, stepping towards Thorin, Bilbo felt a new determination to try and save this ridiculous Dwarf. To make him see sense.

“It’s no trick. The stone is real Thorin. I gave it to them.” Bilbo would forever be proud of how strong his voice sounded. Thorin turned to face him, disbelief on his face.

“You...”

But Bilbo spoke over him. “I took it as my fourteenth share.”

Disbelief turned to anger. “You would steal from me?”

Bilbo frowned, his own disbelief colouring his tone. “Steal from you? No. No. I may be a burglar but I’d like to think I’m an honest one. I’m willing to let it stand against my claim.” Of all the ways he’d imagined his plan could go wrong, Bilbo had never even considered the fact Thorin wouldn’t acknowledge his claim. It was in the bloody contract!

But Bilbo watched as anger turned to rage and for the first time, the sight of Thorin inspired true fear in him.

“Against your claim? Your claim? You have no claim over me you miserable rat!”

Bilbo thought of their embrace on the hillock, of soft looks and sweet words traded at Beorn’s, of countless almost kisses and confessions and he whispered, quiet enough that no one heard, “Don’t I?” Louder, he said, “I was going to give it to you. Many times I wanted to but...”

Thorin was so close now and he snarled, “But what, thief?”

Bilbo felt his own temper start to fray. “You are changed Thorin! The dwarf I met in Bag End would never have gone back on his word. Would never have doubted his kin!”

“Do not speak to me of loyalty!” Thorin roared the words in Bilbo’s face before turning to shout at the others, “Throw him from the ramparts.”

For a moment, Bilbo couldn’t hear anything but an odd ringing in his ears. Thorin’s words echoing in his head. Surely, he had misheard. Thorin couldn’t have really said that...but he had, hadn't he? Bilbo came back to himself to see the horrified expressions on the rest of The Company’s faces. The only comfort Bilbo could take was the fact that no one moved to obey their king. But this resistance only served to enrage Thorin and he was suddenly lunging for Bilbo.

“I WILL DO IT MYSELF!”

Strong arms trapped Bilbo against the outer wall and he could do nothing but stare up at Thorin terrified, desperately searching the Dwarf’s eyes for any sign of care, anything but the endless rage which twisted Thorin’s face. But Bilbo found nothing. He really was going to throw him off the wall. Distantly, he was aware of shouts coming from below but all Bilbo could focus on was the fact that Thorin was really prepared to kill him. And in that moment, the Hobbit felt something in him shatter. Something that he didn’t think could ever be repaired. So he closed his eyes and prayed that his impact with the ground wouldn’t hurt too much.

But the impact never came.

“No!” Fili’s shout seemed to galvanise the others and suddenly the whole Company were pulling Thorin away from him and Kili was sweeping him into a rough embrace, reassuring himself that their burglar was unharmed. After a moment, Bilbo pulled away from the young dwarf in a state of shock to see Fili standing almost toe to toe with Thorin.

“You go too far Uncle!”

“Who are you to question me Fili? I AM YOUR KING! And this, this SHIRE RAT has betrayed us!”

Bilbo felt Thorin’s insult like a knife through his heart but Fili didn’t falter in the face of his uncle’s wrath.

“He was trying to help. Can’t you see that? And he didn’t act alone..”

Thorin reeled back as if Fili had struck him. “What?”

“Me and Kee knew he had the stone. Knew all about his plan too. We even helped, switched our watch so we were on last night and gave him the rope so he could climb down. Or did you think he managed everything on his own?”

“I am betrayed. Betrayed by own my kin. By my own nephews.” Thorin spoke in a daze, looking wildly around himself.

“You going to have us thrown from the ramparts too?” Fili sneered. Bilbo didn’t think he’d ever seen the easy going dwarf sneer before. Thorin continued to look lost for a few moments and then he was drawing himself up to his full height and advancing on Fili.

“I name you traitor. From this moment onwards, you are no longer my heir. You are banished. Your name will be struck from all records, no dwarf kingdom will welcome you. You are outcast. The same applies to your brother.”

Bilbo saw the genuine shock on Fili’s face and despaired that it had ever come to this. He never should have involved the young pair of dwarves.

“Uncle...” Kili tried but Thorin wouldn’t even look at him. Deliberately, he turned his back on all three of them/ Fili looked around at the other members of The Company. None met his gaze. Not even Dwalin or Balin. Fili’s shoulders slumped and Bilbo hated the defeat he saw in his eyes.

A hiss from behind him had Bilbo turning to see Bofur gesturing at them and the three stumbled towards him. He pushed them gently towards the rope which still hung from the wall.

“Go. Quick.” He whispered, shooting a nervous glance at Thorn

“Bofur-“

“I’m sorry Fili.” The dwarf still couldn’t meet his eyes, “I really am. But you should just go. Before things get any worse.”

Fili nodded and motioned for Bilbo to go first. They descended in silence which was broken only when Bard called up to Thorin-

“Are we resolved?” Bilbo heard the desperation in the man’s voice. And something else, resignation, as if he knew the futility of the question but couldn’t help but ask anyway. “The return of the Arkenstone for what was promised?”

“I do not deal with thieves and betrayers.” Came Thorin’s venomous reply.

“Please Thorin, there are things you are not aware of. Please, let us make peace. There is a greater-

“You want my answer Bowman? Then here it is, I WILL HAVE WAR!”

Bilbo, his feet finally reaching the ground, closed his eyes in despair. This was precisely what he had been hoping to avoid.