Then Bard was opening his eyes in the middle of a smooth stone basin, enclosed all around save for two large dips on opposing sides. The deeper dip on the left opened to an empty plain, while past the smaller dip on the right only sky could be seen.
His head ached a little as he glanced back up to the cliff from which he’d fallen, and he gingerly prodded at it, relieved to find no blood on his fingers. Had it healed already, or had the fall somehow not actually hurt him? Frowning, Bard examined the distance between where he lay and the stone wall. Come to think of it, had he just fallen, or had that been before? It felt like a lot more time had passed.
Turning onto his side to push himself up, Bard paused as his fingers sank into what should’ve been solid stone. Once again examining the digits, he was surprised to find a light brown substance clinging to his fingertips. Dirt? Even crushed, stone didn’t turn into dirt. Sand maybe, but this was too light to match that coarse substance. Rubbing his hand across and into the ground, he found that the dirt extended about a centimeter downward before he hit stone again. And that it was only in the area nearest to him. For a couple square meters centered on a large crack in the ground where he’d fallen there was earth covered stone, then it returned to the lifeless rock. Was the place fixing itself? Without water there could be no life, but with only stone nothing would grow.
For the first time since he’d arrived in the strange place—and how many times had he been there before? Ten times? Twenty? A hundred? Only once?—Bard considered the land around him, and wondered how it had come to be this way. The forest must’ve been alive once, and surely the prairies he’d only caught a glimpse of would’ve been teeming with grasses and bushes. The dry and broken reeds that ringed one side of the stone basin couldn’t have always been laid low as they were now.
Striding over to the long stalks and kneeling to examine them, he wondered at how they’d been broken. The eroded rocks he’d seen spoke of wind, but the reeds were tossed about in different directions as if someone or something had swept through them, purposefully scattering them about. The stalks were large too, nearly two thirds as wide as his palm. Being so wide implied age, and deep roots as well. It was unlikely they were deep enough to survive such a terrible drought, but there was a chance, and as he’d found when he’d felled the great Smaug, a chance was sometimes just enough.
What soil had spontaneously came into existence from stone would not be enough to coax the roots into new life—nothing would without water, but that was a whole other problem—but the dead stalks could be useful. Going from what little the bargeman knew of growing things, dead plants could be used to fuel new plants. So while the lack of water would hinder things drastically, crushing the dead reeds and spreading them over the ground could be a good start to renewing things here. Time, water, and the sun would somehow work to assist things further, and perhaps bring life to the emptiness that lay heavy in the air like someone’s long accepted misery.
There was already enough desolation in that other place, the one with his lovely children, Dale, and the stone-cold elves. There he could do nothing physical to help, and while he knew delegation and negotiating and meetings were necessary and would lead to recovery, he couldn’t help but wish to put his hands to work too. He had been a bargeman for many years before he’d killed a dragon and somehow earned the title of ‘king’.
With this in mind, he began to work.
Starting at the far end of the basin where the reeds were sparsest, he began crushing the stalks. Both by hand and underfoot, the reeds fell apart into unnaturally short thin strip, and he spread them to either side, finding he enjoyed the strange work far more than he’d have thought. Who knew one could get so unsettled with delegation jobs so quickly? Really, how did King Thranduil do it?
About an eighth of the way through the reeds, and still contemplating whether or not the amount of delegating King Thranduil must’ve done in his long life drove him insane, Bard found that between one blink and the next he was opening his eyes to the ceiling of their house in Dale.
Had he really spent all night crushing reeds? His hands sure felt like it, tired and aching.
Bard let out a soft groan and rolled over, slinging his arm across his face. It was still dark out, so why was he awake? And what had been going on with the continuing dream? Any type of dream with reoccurring themes or characters rarely came to Bard, and if they did it was years apart, so he couldn’t tell if there even had been a first dream or if it was a made up memory. Not to mention how infrequently he dreamt in the first place.
Still, it had been soothing, almost calming amidst the turmoil of reality. Work without the Master looking over his shoulder every moment, without elves judging him from far shores with cool eyes. Just twisting stalks and leaves between his hands, shredding them, spreading them, and repeating. Again and again.
Here in the waking world he had to guide people with no experience save his children, deal with war when the only injuries or deaths he had seen before were from accidents or illness, negotiate with kings as if he’d ever actually held conversation with an important ruler before. The Master really didn’t count, considering that watching his words had oft resulted in the same reactions as others when they spewed hate as the man.
No, reality was hard. From dealing with men and a few elves to dealing with their king and the impossible dwarves was-. The dwarves! That meeting was this morning!
Less than graceful in his attempt at being quiet while scrambling out of bed, Bard barely caught himself from falling and hissed as he smacked his sore hands again the rough stone wall. Quickly and as silently as possible, Bard rummaged through his meager supplies, letting out a short sigh of relief when he found clean, somewhat presentable clothes he could wear to the meeting. He thought he’d been scraping the bottom of the barrel the day before with what he’d worn before King Thranduil, but evidently he’d somehow missed clothes that might’ve nearer the top of the barrel, going along with the metaphor. King Thranduil had, for whatever reason—perhaps Bard being preferable to the dwarves—not seemed to look down upon him for his dress or manner, but in an official manor him and Dain most likely would. Bilbo Baggins might not even notice. Still, while Bard didn’t actually care what Dain thought of him, he figured the dwarf would be easier to deal with if he wasn’t looking down on Bard for the state of his dress as well as everything else.
After nearly forgetting to bring the Arkenstone, it was only by the grace of the Valor that Bard got to the meeting tent without being noticed. For such an early hour there were already many people up and about, rushing from one place to the next without a thought or care for the others who scurried around. Barely out of breath, but unfortunately disheveled, Bard was pleasantly surprised to find that he was only the second person there after King Thranduil. The elvenking somehow gave off the appearance of lounging gracefully while standing in front of the same table from yesterday, this time centered with smaller platters of picking food and a jug of some liquid Bard hoped wasn’t wine.
"King Thranduil." Bard greeted, pretending he hadn’t nearly ran the whole way there as he smoothed down the sides of his jacket.
"King Bard." The other returned, following it up with a flowing gesture around the empty tent. "As you can see, we are the first to arrive. Drink?"
The elvenking had his own cup already in hand, but Bard hesitated. He didn’t want to appear rude by refusing, but elven wine was extremely strong. Not something he wanted to consume so early in the morning.
Thankfully it seemed King Thranduil understood his hesitation, clarifying with a tip of his cup, "You needn’t worry about it being wine. This is a far less aged drink from beyond the Misty Mountains."
"Ah, yes then, that would be nice.” Bard relaxed, quirking the side of his mouth up in awkward smile as he admitted, “I'm afraid I didn't leave myself much time to do anything but wake up and get here.”
The elvenking nodded dismissively, filling up another cup from a pitcher on a side table. Not the one in the middle, Bard observed, wondering whether that would be what the other served to the dwarves. The two races were almost ridiculous in the depths of their rivalry.
The human king reached out to take the goblet and frowned as he noticed small bits of reeds still stuck in his fingernails. They looked like the same reeds he’d been tearing apart in his dream, and he couldn’t recall handling any other reed type plants lately. The drink was pressed into his hand while he was considering it, and he automatically took the cup with a quiet thanks, still looking thoughtfully at his fingers. He’d not been doing as much manual labour as he’d like in the past few days, but he had handled some of the materials people brought to him. Perhaps he’d just not noticed reeds in amongst them.
A sharp intake of breath drew his gaze to King Thranduil, and Bard was taken aback to see the other’s eyes had widened slightly, the greatest expression of shock Bard had ever seen on the elvenking’s face. Far too great for what was probably just grass.
"Where-" Whatever the elvenking had been about to ask was cut off by an outside guard announcing new arrivals.
"Bilbo Baggins, the speaker for the dwarves of Erebor, his advisor Balin son of Fundin, and Mithrandir."
With that King Thranduil’s face was coolly neutral once again, and though Bard waited a moment, the other made no move to continue his question. Shrugging it off as something to think about when he had extra time, and well aware that extra time was so far away that he’d likely never consider it again, Bard looked over as the tent flaps were brushed aside, smiling slightly as the hobbit entered.
The man’s smile turned a little less genuine as the other two followed him in. Refusing to let his discontent show further, Bard managed all his greetings at the same pitch, reminding himself that politeness would get this done quicker. It wasn't that Bard had anything against either Gandalf or the dwarf, merely King Thranduil's reactions leaking through on the former and Bard's own crushed hope on the latter. It had been Thorin who’d refused to give promised and much needed aid, but while they all should’ve known it was wrong, only Master Baggins had actually done something about it. He’d said it was for the dwarves only, but Bard still couldn’t help but like the little man.
Slightly confused at having been the first to give greetings, Bard turned to King Thranduil only to find the other still watching him, holding his gaze fathomlessly for a couple seconds before turning to the newcomers.
"Hobbit, Mithrandir." His greetings were even colder than Bard’s had unintentionally been. Without giving either a chance to respond he continued, directing his question to the smallest among them. "Tell me Master Baggins, how has it come to pass that you speak for Erebor?"
The hobbit frowned, shrugging and scuffing one foot across the floor as he answered. "None of the Durins can be here, and out of the dwarves, I’m the only one who’s already spoken with you so it was decided that well, that I should do so again."
"Will they survive?" Bard asked, concerned about the line of Durin no matter how dishonorable their leader had proven to be. Well, how susceptible to the Arkenstone and dragon sickness he’d proven to be, was probably a better description.
Master Baggins shot Bard a slightly grateful smile and nodded, "They should. Scars and memories, but they'll live."
A soft huff came from King Thranduil and the hobbit visibly stiffened, evidently expecting scorn or amusement though Bard had heard neither in the elf's small noise.
"And your relationship with Thorin Oakenshield would no doubt be an influence as well." He drawled softly, focused intently on the hobbit. "Yet you are a being of soft hills and sun filled grasslands. Do you really intend to stay buried underground for the rest of your life?"
Taking a small step back as if King Thranduil had dealt him a physical blow, Master Baggins looked stunned. Bard himself was rather confused. What kind of relationship were they in that would have Master Baggins not going back to his home?
"That is not the purpose of our discussion here." The dwarf advisor, Balin—whom Bard recognized as being kind-hearted at least, despite his initial lies—spoke up in a firm voice. "We're here to speak on debts owed and the Arkenstone."
"Will you be honoring those debts now then?" Bard asked, still unable to stop himself from hoping that this could still end diplomatically.
It was Master Baggins who answered, evidently a little unnerved by King Thranduil's input, but steady in his answer. "The treasure promised to Laketown will be given to help you rebuild. Since Thorin was unspecific on how much he was promising, we thought we’d set up another meeting later on once you know how what you’ll need."
"Although we would like to know first if you intend to rebuild Laketown or Dale." Balin added
Sending a sideways glance at King Thranduil at the reminder of their recent conversation, Bard made a mental apology to the people of Laketown. "Dale. We’ll rebuild Dale"
The elvenking tilted his head in a small show of approval and the bargeman didn't know whether to feel patronized or reassured. He knew it was the better option, but when people’s lives were involved like this he wasn’t happy with taking away their options. Then again, they had been the ones to place him as their leader, and Dale would have to be the end goal. Bard would not be like the Master had been, stealing their money and sitting in luxury while the town decayed around him, but he also couldn't allow himself to be complacent. He needed to be better.
"And the gems?" King Thranduil spoke up and Bard blinked, realizing he'd been staring at the other while sorting out his thoughts.
Here Balin was the one to look away while Master Baggins stood straight, opening his mouth to reply. Once again the announcement of the outside guard interrupted, but he’d barely started speaking before Dain barged his way into the tent, a scowl already set on his face. Had Bard not known differently he would've sworn that the dwarf had waited outside to enter at the perfect moment just to spite King Thranduil. And the elvenking did look spited.
"Ah, Dain of the Ironhills. How surprising that you’ve finally decided to join us. When it isn't blood and war I didn’t think there was time for dwarves to fulfill the duties of kingship." King Thranduil mocked evenly.
The dwarf bared his teeth in something that couldn't pass for a smile unless one really squinted. And didn’t look at him straight. Or know what a smile looked like. "And when there isn’t something for you knife-ears to gain, no one’ll ever see hide nor hair of your kind. Since you haven’t already run back to that rotting forest of yours, I’ll assume you’re here to leach more wealth from my cousin while he’s on his sickbed.”
“We’ve all got reason to be here” Bard defended, dearly hoping it wouldn’t fall to him to be the voice of reason between the two. Whatever feud the elves and dwarves had going on, they should at least both be able to see the discussion would go quicker with civility.
Before either could retort, Master Baggins cut in, voice pitched a little higher than normal. “The gems that belong to the elves will be returned to them.”
From there the meeting descended into controlled chaos. Dain was fine with the men getting what was owed, but didn’t think that anything should be given to the elves, while Master Baggins refused to cheat anyone out of anything, regardless of their species. From there Dain retorted that since Master Baggins was a hobbit and not a dwarf, he had no idea of what he was talking about when it came to ‘those pointy eared bastards’, and therefore shouldn’t be speaking for Erebor or any of her treasures in regards to them. A short clip in Khuzdul by Balin quickly put a stop to that, and Dain at least seemed to ease off for the rest of the meeting, pointed comments and jabs at King Thranduil and the elves in general notwithstanding. Not that King Thranduil didn’t give as good as got, or worse.
Still, in the end Laketown would be paid what they were owed, though it was decided that until they had a safe place to keep their payment, they would be given lighter, easier guarded treasures to keep as collateral for the more useful ones. Though this brought up a point of worry due to Thorin’s stubbornness about bargaining even for the Arkenstone, that too was eventually settled. As for the elves, whatever gems belonged to them would be returned.
Then there were more agreements to be settled upon and wrapped up, and by the time they went their separate ways Bard had completely forgotten about the odd behavior of the elven king, his mind far elsewhere.
That night Bard was back again in the stone basin, crushing stems and spreading them, letting his thoughts drift and his mind unwind. The patch of dirt that had appeared in the stone floor of the basin had become wider in his absence, and Bard wondered if it would spread until it touched the reeds, and then fill the whole basin. That would be helpful. While the shredded reeds made a far better mulch than they should have, a mix of the organic fibers and the dry dirt seemed like it would help even more. Water of course was still an issue, but it was a start.
Nights and days passed, and in and out the two realities switched. In what must’ve been the daytime, Bards mind worked through problems and solutions, while at night he easily lost himself in manual labour, giving him a sense of accomplishment that in reality took far longer to come about.
Not to say that he was always working at night. During the days he had no luxury for casual rest, so on some nights he took it for himself. Often he’d climb up the walls of the basin and look out at the enchanting stars, watching as they melded evenly into the sky above. Sometimes Bard would walk, exploring what he’d found to be an island, though one a bit too big to follow the entire circumference in one night. With time, he decided that the only thing wrong with the place, other than the sections that just felt off, was the lack of water. Everything had dried up.
In the waking world things were different. There was progress there as well, but it was a slow laborious thing that tripped and shuddered along its journey to realization. The clearing of the battlefield of bodies was progress, but the acid stench of burning orc and the weeping of broken families made it a hollow victory. Finding new shelters that wouldn’t fall apart at a wrong touch was a priority, and homes were a hard thing to create when so many people were left with nothing but what they had on their backs. Each meeting with the other kings was fraught with undertones and plays that went almost entirely over Bard’s head, and the amount of people who wanted something from him was never ending. Still, progress existed there too, and Bard had rarely been so proud of his kids for theirs.
Bain joined their record keepers to meet with the dwarves, and over the course of many hours they settled on payment towards the restoration of the town. The constant pain and death chased young Tilda from the healing tents before she could she could be burned out by it, and she ended up with other work in the form of salvaging and recycling clothing and blankets for the coming winter. Sigrid continued on in the kitchens even after many of the elves left, and soon joined in setting up a more permanent communal eating area where food was rationed out.
Still, despite the progress of the day, at night there was no fast approaching winter as a looming deadline. No time limit, yet things still moved quicker.
The crushing of the reeds was soon finished, and leaving behind a mixture that was far thicker and more earthen than it should’ve been, Bard embraced his earlier occasional breaks and just walked. He spent almost a week’s worth of sleep exploring, and when it came to mind that he should find another task, one was there.
The dirt that had once been stone needed to be turned. It was too hard for anything to break through and grow, and though he’d scraped a couple centimeters off of the top to mix with the reeds, what was underneath was still hard and unyielding. At first he used his hands to dig, then when he found them rubbed raw in a meeting with a small group of stone masons he changed to using a medium sized stone with a single flat edge. It took longer than he’d have liked, to dig and turn the soil, but soon after he came across another easier method very much by accident.
On one of his break nights he’d been throwing small pebbles into the basin, and instead of another of the repetitive clinks, there’d been a thud. Looking down, he’d found that the rock he’d thrown, one a fair bit larger than the others, had not bounced off the hard rock, but sank into the very ground itself. Closer examination showed that the ground had buckled outwards in thing ripples, breaking into chucks that were easily crushed into dirt. And so that had been his labour for the next many nights when he needed to feel like he was actually doing something, and nothing in the waking world could satisfy. Carrying rocks to the top of the cliff only to throw them back down, then following them himself and breaking up the ground around where they’d fallen. Slightly tedious work, but far less time consuming.
No, there was no fast approaching winter there in the dream world, but the sense of urgency followed Bard nevertheless. He didn’t realize just how much though, until he went to sleep one night under softly falling snow to nearly cry in relief at the blazing sun his eyes opened to. The relief was quickly followed by consternation, as he realized that snow would’ve been a way to get much needed water back into the dreamscape. Not to mention that just because he would still be, well, not warm, but not cold either, at night, it didn’t change his or anyone else’s status in reality. Nor would it hurry the labourers who’d yet to arrive.
While Dale’s possession of a portion of Erebor’s gold was a great step forward, even that required workers to pay, workers who were simply not there. Travel took time, finding people took time, everything took time, and too few had arrived by the time the first deadly flakes of snow had started to fall from the sky.
Surprisingly, more helpful than the gold were the elves. King Thranduil had a group of elves with various much needed specialties who stayed in Dale even when the majority of their warriors and the king himself went back to Mirkwood less than a month after the battle. The ancient beings had seen kingdoms fall and grow, and shared their knowledge in an easy way that would have been almost suspicious had they not been so very elflike about it. Still, they knew many ways of reclaiming the ruined city and mountain, and kept calm even when the men on their last nerves cracked and strained under the pressure. Not that the elves would be caught dead giving aid to Erebor for free. It helped that it was the hobbit whom King Thranduil negotiated with, Bard for some reason being privy to most of the meetings even when they didn’t directly concern him. Not that he was too upset about it. The handful of times when the two spoke of sowing fields for food he listened intently, coveting the knowledge for later use in the dreamscape.
Still, it became something quite close to amusing, the amount of times he ended up being involved or on the edge of meetings between the elvenking and dwarven representatives. Sometimes Gandalf would need to speak with him and King Thranduil would just happen to be speaking with the hobbit and dwarves in the same tent. Other times he would be needed by someone who never showed up, but since the dwarves and elves were negotiating just steps away, it only made sense for Bard to stay.
The only thing that really kept it from being amusing was how tiring it also was. Granted, he became friends with Master Baggins while they worked as mediators for the two races, but neither group liked having mediators, so they had to pretend that what they were doing wasn’t exactly what they were actually doing. It did mean that Bard had a good standing with the current stand in for the dwarvenking though, which would be useful. His relationship with King Thranduil on the other hand was, well, odd.
The other seemed determined that Bard learn how to be a king, and guided him in private through mockery and questioning, all in a tone that suggested he had much better things to do. When among others however, the elvenking would take Bard’s side in arguments, standing by him and allowing no ill comments about his inexperience to pass by unchecked. It could’ve just been King Thranduil’s distain for the dwarves acting up, but certain things he’d do or say made Bard think differently. Still, it was almost a relief when the elvenking left and the ‘kingly meetings’ came to a close. Beautiful though King Thranduil was, and amusing though he could be, Bard found himself simply too confused by the king to call them anything more than allies.
The night Bard started building a wall on the far side of the basin was also the first time there was a change not of his own making.
He had finished turning the dirt at the bottom of the basin three nights previous and decided that it only made sense to finish one of the two downed sides. While the basin would one day hold water, the amount needed would never stay if there was a huge gap allowing it to drain away. Seeing as the rocks that Bard had dropped to crack the earth hadn't turned to dirt themselves, he had decided to use them to stack up a wall. And, as it was with the rest of this dream, the rocks were perfect. Stacking them like bricks was easier than it should be, and the process of fitting them together made them slightly malleable, squeezing into spaces he directed them to. It wasn’t easy work, but it was manageable.
Bard had just finished smoothing out a filler rock to meld with the other big ones near it and was turning to grab another when he was blocked by something that had not been there before. Or someone, actually.
For a full minute he simply stared at the elvenking of Mirkwood, surprised that out of everyone he knew, this would be the person to show up. Not that he’d put much thought into anyone else being there. Other than stay thoughts that his children would probably like to explore the place, he’d never considered another person encroaching upon the island. Then again, said island didn’t really feel encroached upon even with the presence of King Thranduil.
So he took in stride, politely asking, "Can you pass me that rock? The one that looks like a triangle."
The look of anger and confusion on King Thranduil's face promptly shifted to bewilderment. For a few patient moments he was still, then when he spoke it was not to answer Bards request.
"Why are you here?" He asked, as if it wasn’t him who was the newcomer.
"Because this is my dream." Bard responded easily, finally moving around the king to pick up the rock himself. He was on a roll here, and had little time to wait for King Thranduil to pick up a stone for him. Not that he could imagine the elvenking doing something like that. Even his dream couldn’t conjure such a situation.
In all honesty Bard was slightly miffed that King Thranduil was going to exist on the island and wasn't even going to try and help. He knew the elvenking helped through words and negotiations, but those couldn’t fix everything. So if he was just going to ignore how much this place needed the work, he could do it alone. As long as he didn't get in Bard's way, or disturb the peaceful solitude that the man found here.
"And why are you here?" Bard returned the question after a couple minutes of the elvenking standing in silence while the man worked. "If your plan is to stand around and do nothing, I’m sure there are far more interesting places to do so out there. This whole place needs work."
The silence behind Bard turned frosty with unconcealed anger. "There is no aid that can help here."
The man straightened, brushing his hands off on his thighs as he looked at the other incredulously. Swinging an arm out in a gesture to encompass the whole of the basin, he asked, "Are you serious? Look at what’s been done already. All the stone’s been turned to dirt, good dirt from I can tell, and with the crushed up reeds that’ll spread their seeds, they’ll start to grow again.” He paused, correcting himself. “Once this wall is fixed at least, when the water won’t drain away. But still, of course it can be fixed. This place wants to be fixed. It’s been four months and most of the time I’ve spent sitting and doing nothing. Already so much has changed."
While there was no way Bard would’ve spoken like that to the real King Thranduil, this dream shade seemed less real, more approachable. He frowned at that thought, using the elf's silence to think on why that was. Surely the elvenking would be just as intimidating here as in real life.
The other wasn't wearing his ceremonial robes, instead more casual ones that still likely cost enough to feed Bard's family for a month. Already his expressions seemed different too. Instead of a painted mask, shock was painted across his face as he examined the basin, apparently uncaring of how Bard was in turn examining him. King Thranduil held himself differently here too, not slouching, but looser, without a weight Bard had never before noticed him carrying in the real world. Strange, that his mind would add so much life to the icy king. Strange, but it didn't change the fact that he was intruding in this space Bard had been so grateful to call his own. Still, if he stayed quiet and out of the way Bard supposed he wouldn't mind.
“I don't understand.” The elvenking finally stated, still staring out into the basin. “Why would you be here? Why are you trying to fix this?”
Bard tilted his head, considering. Distantly he wondered why he didn’t just ignore the figment of his imagination, but the better part of him actually wanted the other to understand. Perhaps it was his way of figuring out what he was doing himself.
“Outside, out there in reality,” Bard began, absentmindedly rubbing a sharp rock point into smoothness. “I'm expected to be a king. To know what I'm doing when I'm speaking with rulers, and creating delegations, and directing people. All that stuff. But I don’t, I’m not. I have no idea what I'm doing. You help some, or the real you does, though I can't figure out what you're telling me half the time or why you're helping. Master Baggins helps too because he knows as little as I. But I'm responsible for so many people now, and they expect me to be able to help them when I've no idea how.
"I'm still just a bargeman," His voice had risen and he forced it back down to a calmer tone, attempting to put sense into the tirade. "I can't rule people, I don't know how. Here though, here I can help. I may not be a builder, but this place responds. Like I said, it wants to be fixed. I can't imagine how long it must've been abandoned. It's like Dale, except that it helps itself too."
That hadn’t made much sense, but Bard figured that the figment of his imagination that was King Thranduil wouldn’t care. He understood things a little better at least. It wasn’t that he thought he was doing a bad job as ‘king’, or that he knew of someone who could do better, he just didn’t know if he was doing enough. Going from a bargeman to a king was a huge leap, and not one he’d aspired to.
The imagined King Thranduil looked so close to the real one just then that Bard thought he could be forgiving for momentary mistaking the two, black faced as he was and staring at the human. There was a fire in his eyes though, one that belied some sort of passionate response he was refusing to give motion to. Honestly, Bard couldn't tell if the other was about to attack him or, well, do something that he knew the elvenking would never do. Staring at Bard as he was, the bargeman found that he couldn't look away. It lasted until Bard was shifting in place, wishing he’d not said so much.
"You will make a good king." King Thranduil said finally, the look in his eyes hidden away again as he broke their gaze. "You are inexperienced, yes, but your people know this and do not expect more than you can give. With time and growth, you will be a great king, perhaps better than those Dale has had before.”
The words were unexpected coming from the elvenking, and for a moment Bard felt touched that such a creature would complement him so.
Then reality—or rather the lack of reality here—swept back in and he laughed without humor. "It’s good to hear someone say as much, even if it’s only in my own mind.”
Thranduil tilted his head. "You said something to that effect before. Am I not real?"
"Of course not."
The other's mask stayed for a few more seconds before he let it drop, an amused smile gracing his lips, and he tilted his head in agreement. Then, as if the revelation of his own non-existence was comforting, the elvenking seemed to relax. A few strides took him to a large boulder sitting against the larger wall, and he swiftly scaled the side in a way that should've been clumsy and led to a prompt fall, but instead looked easy and filled with grace. Perching now on the top, Thranduil cocked his head and seemed content to just watch him.
After waiting to see if the other had anything else to say or do, Bard mentally shrugged and turned back to work.
About half an hour had passed before the elvenking spoke again, this time his voice devoid of the normal tone which always demanded full attention. "Is that why you started your work in this place then? To prove that you could induce change?"
Bard continued to add rocks to the wall as he pondered his answer, coming to it slowly. "That might’ve been a part of it, yes. But more than that I wanted to help. To be faced with the death of war and winter in the waking world and then the rot of abandonment in my dreams was too much. In both I need to do what I can to fix things."
"Yet what you do here affects you in the waking world. You had pieces of the reeds under your fingernails, dust on your clothes and scrapes on your arms." Thranduil noted, brushing away a piece of hair that’d fallen into his face. "Does it not wear you down, all this work?"
Twisting his arms palm up, Bard frowned down at the scrapes that cut through them. He had assumed they were from what manual work he did in real life, the clearing of the building they’d designated as the administration house. While quite a lot of his new job was thinking and talking, there was still some time for physical labor.
He reiterated this assumption to the elf, scrubbing at a piece of dirt stuck to his arm. Giving up when he only succeeded in smudging it around, he added, "This work doesn't wear me out. It’s calming, full of menial tasks that don't require hard thought. My body is asleep and getting me ready for a new day, but that doesn't mean I can't be doing things at the same time. And I’m not always working.” He added. “Often I just walk, or sit and let my mind wander. It’s peaceful here, despite how dead it is."
It didn't make sense out loud, but that didn’t mean it didn’t work anyways.
"That makes little sense." Thranduil repeated Bard's thought and the man snorted softly.
Considering he himself didn’t really understand what he was doing or how it worked, he wasn't planning on expanding. Lucid dreaming every night, building up a place that didn’t exist and then waking with its marks following him. There was no reasoning that would make it comprehensible.
"None of this makes sense." Bard murmured, turning to squint at the elvenking.
The other stiffened at Bard’s sharp gaze, but thawed quickly and a light smirk rested on his face as he commented, "You were a bargeman, not a laborer."
Shrugging off the way King Thranduil had rerouted the conversation, Bard turned away, glad to cease contemplation of his strange reality.
Attempting to press a particularly stubborn stone into place, Bard agreed. "That's true. But that was never my first choice. Only what allowed me the most freedom while the whole of Laketown was under the Master's thumb."
"He hated you and yours." Thranduil commented
Bard snorted, letting out a small noise of triumph as the piece finally smoothed out. "He hated everything that could be a threat to his power, real or imagined. Myself, my children." Here he paused to swallow. "My wife"
The silence that fell was tainted by sorrow, but it was comforting knowing it was a shared sadness. It had been years before Bard was even born, but he knew Thranduil had lost his wife too. The strength of his grief and change in interactions had been a heavy point of gossip for the few elderly Laketowners.
It was said that the ice king been kind before her death. That the corruption of Mirkwood came about because of his grief. A favorite theory even was that elves ceased to be after their love died, and that Thranduil had started to die and now only a shell remained. Not enough to protect Mirkwood or show emotion, merely there to rule his distant brethren. Bard had seen enough of the real elvenking's emotions to be reasonably sure that this theory wasn't true, but the other part he wasn't so sure of.
"I heard that elves die when the one they love does."
He froze immediately after the statement, already regretting blurting it out without any tact. There was no reason to ask other than his own curiosity, and how would this figment know anyways?
"I'm sorry." Bard started, turning again to the elf, "That wasn't-"
"The curiosity and bluntness of man?" Thranduil interrupted, an eyebrow raised in mocking question.
Bard cringed, waiting for whatever ire was going to come his way next.