Chapter 1: A Prologue
An arrow whizzed through the trees, narrowly avoiding a long hanging vine and sinking deep into the middle of a propped up target. A childish shout of victory echoed through the forest and a young elf scrambled after the projectile, pulling it out and flourishing it victoriously.
“See! Fifty across the forest in one minute. I beat you!” The elfling crowed, gleefully lording her first victory over her brother.
The other elfling, slightly bigger but still a child, rolled his eyes. “You beat me by one, and it took you how long?”
The younger one pouted, “Yes, but I’m younger than you, and better already.”
A gust of air tinted with fresh ozone swept through the clearing before the brother could counter his sister's words, and the argument was forgotten as both their faces lit up.
“Ada!” The older elfling cried out in excitement, waiting only long enough for his sister to get to the bottom of the tree before taking off through the dense forest.
The two of them ran almost in sync, leaping over and ducking under thick crawling vines, sliding around giant fungi, and scaling vast elder trees to fling themselves over deep dips and shaded hollows in the mossy floor. Above them birds sang cheerily, and from the depths of the trees large cats growled, the air of the forest teeming with life though neither hide nor hair could be seen.
As the children ran they collected more arrows such as the one that'd placed the girl's latest temporary triumph, barely stopping to pull them out, their motions so practiced that not a single one broke in their haste. Upon reaching a giant tree split down the middle as if struck by lightning, the two broke away from each other, each sprinting in a separate direction. The younger to the left, following a stream that trickled under dead leaves and passed by slowly unfurling ferns. Neither were spared a glance as she passed by, still more arrows finding their way into the quiver on her back. Having gone to the right, the boy followed a short ravine for a little ways before running up the side of a mound to where vines grew thick, tangling together like snakes. Hissing could indeed be heard, but again there were no signs of the animals, and the elfling showed no wariness in his light steps among them.
The two met up again shortly, converging to a hollowed out tree in which the full quivers were deposited for the next time they came to play. Another few steps and the forest gave way to a large expanse of grass, dotted here and there by thin white trees and grey wind smoothed rocks. Here they picked up speed, racing each other across the plain to where two adult elves walked side by side, engaged in light conversation.
“Ada! Naneth!” The elflings cried, their chorusing voices all but swallowed up by the sounds of the nearby surf.
Indeed behind the two elves the ocean beat at a pebbly beach as they greeted their children, its constant roll-in roll-out rhythm smooth and unending in the background. The only thing it ceased for was a great mass of stone situated orthogonal to the ocean, the half un-eroded by the water jutting out proudly into the seam between grassland and forest. On the far side of the stone the depths were calm, walled in by rock to create an almost peaceful inlet where reeds grew, springing up and waving lazily at the edge of the water. A rarely changing dichotomy, one that had existed for many years, and would continue to do so for many more.
The older elves met the younger ones happily, the daughter practically bursting with great delight at the accomplishment she'd passed that evening, chattering away and nearly tripping over herself with her own words. Sharing in her joy, the girl's ada responded with a broad smile that stretched at the deep scars on the side of his face, while her naneth laughed delightedly at her excitement, joining in on the celebration with praise of her own. The son pouted and teased, but when his sister wasn’t looking he grinned just as broadly as she did, pride clear in his gaze.
Crossing the prairie, the elven family settled down against one of the windswept rocks, listening happily as the daughter recounted her tale, the son all too happy to butt in with his own embellishments.
The dreamscape, for that was indeed what it was, was filled with joy, laughter ringing through the air and bright sunlight shining down from the clear blue sky.
Many years later and back in the same dreamscape, the two elflings had grown into fine young elves, and another elfling had been added to the family, his presence in the dreamscape showing in red berried plants on the prairie and the cries of birds of prey overhead. Here and there long grasses had sprung up with his birth, ever reaching upwards in the pursuit of the sky.
Beyond the ocean's edge and below the horizon line stars twinkled merrily, unchanging whether dawn, dusk, high noon, or twilight painted the sky above. They were rarely visible to the newest elfling, bound by gravity as he was, but they watched over him all the same, surrounding and stretching out far below the island of the dreamscape. They shone all the brighter when the elfling strayed too close to the island's edge, where dirt and roots were exposed to the air as if some greater being had torn the small dreamscape from a land mass far larger. The plants certainly didn't seem to mind their purposed relocation, growing out into the nothingness with the single-minded drive that only roots ever searching for more water and minerals could possess.
Though the dreamscape watched over the new elfling, his ada followed him closely as he ran down the pebbled beach, nearly as tireless as the roots were in his own quest for the perfect rock or shiny object. Whenever he found one it was presented with a quiet solemnity to his ada, after which they would both gravely consider the object, debating whether it was enough to present to his naneth. For while all the stones he found were perfect, his naneth was beyond perfect, and though his ada assured him she would love whichever one he found for her, he knew he must find the one, if he wanted to gift it to her.
Merrily oblivious to the severe search going on only a few handfuls of meters away, the elfling's naneth spoke with her other children, discussing border patrol with her daughter and politics with her son.
Joy lingered here.
Not so many years later and there was a darkness that now spread, a fog over the entire dreamscape. For instead of five elves running and playing and living contentedly, there were only four. Three children, one younger than the others, and their ada.
A light had been taken from the oldest elf, and even had they the early thought to act, the others wouldn't have known how to bring it back. Time passed like this, and even when the ada woke enough to look around he still didn't know how to reach out as he should've, the children too consumed by their own grief to know themselves. Instead of binding together on their island, they began to slowly separate, pulling further and further away, clinging to things other than each other. It wasn't a sudden change, for the lives of elves are rarely sudden, but eventually, when drought-filled days grew longer, the oldest boy left.
Years passed, and he did not come back. As plants died around the oldest elf, as the soil dried up and the ocean pulled back, he did not come back. When the vines and ferns withered to match the dead trees the daughter left too, and so it was just the elf and his youngest, desperate to have his ada back, for he had already lost his naneth. Desperate, and without any idea of what to do to fix his family when he had nary an idea of what to do for himself.
When the ocean completely disappeared, when the forest turned to a mausoleum of dried husks, and the last of the reads was broken and snapped by the elf’s pacing, the elfling who was an elfling no longer finally stepped back. He'd tried to reach his ada, and in his more hopeful moments he thought his ada had tried to reach back, but even with the long lives of the elves there came a time when there was nothing more one could do.
His grip on his ada's dreamscape had already become fragile, thinning all the more as the other distanced himself from the world and from his children. It was a simple and painful thing to break, but it broke none the less, slipping from him like the memory of an elflings laughter on the air. The boy let go, and the chasm between the dreamer and the elves he ruled over grew deeper.
Years later, the older elf looked at the husk of what had once been a lively green forest, the desert that used to be wild untamed prairies, the smooth sand that used to be an ocean, and he wept.
Chapter 2: An Unexpected Waking
It was an unexpected sight that Bard woke to. Not to say he’d been expecting anything, just that this was, particularly unexpected. First off, it was the middle of the day, not a cloud in sight despite the rainy season currently reigning in Laketown and surrounding area. Secondly, even had it been a spontaneously cloudless day, he should've been waking to the ceiling of the house he and his family were currently staying in, rather than out in the open for any of Laketown's beleaguered population to come across. Thirdly—and while it might not be the last point of issue, it was certainly the biggest—not only was he out in the open, but he was also out in the open of a place that was not Dale, or Laketown, or the edges of Mirkwood, or any of the surrounding country that Bard had seen or even heard of.
After a longer inspection of his immediate surroundings than his initial glance around, he began to develop the theory that he had not, in fact, woken up in a completely unfamiliar area, simply because he had not woken up at all. Granted, it didn't have that quality that dreams usually did, where even if one was aware, there was still a disconnect between oneself and their surroundings, but he couldn't imagine a place like this existing alongside reality. Baring Mordor, there was no way there existed a place in the world that was this far gone.
The worst of what he could see had to be the forest. Or what had once been a forest. The husks of the trees were massive, and he could tell that in its heyday it must've been majestic, a giant jungle to rival that of the far away elves. Now however, it was dead, with a sort of crawling feeling to it more reminisce of the closer elves and their kingdom in Mirkwood. A lifeless place into which no sane mortal would venture.
Best not to dwell on or near it for long, Bard thought, shuddering slightly as he turned away.
The rest of what he could see was as unwelcoming as the forest, but without the malevolent touch, merely soaked in something like grief. Though he’d never seen one, he’d heard of statues so lifelike that it seemed the very stone was weeping, and the rocks he now faced seemed embody the idea, presence of a face or not. A large stone wall rose there, wind smooth and a bland shade of grey so lacking color that one could imagine the world had lost every bit of it altogether.
It felt almost rude to even think of touching the formless wall, but once the thought of it was in Bard’s head he couldn’t seem to loosen it. From the height of the stone he may not be able to look over the forest, but perhaps he would be able to see elsewhere, to recognize something in the off chance this wasn’t some strange dream.
Slowly he approached the wall, coming to a dead halt right before it and reaching out tentatively as if it might bite him. For all the unwelcome feelings the thing was forcing upon him, actually touching it rather anticlimactic. Being neither particularly warm nor cold, the stone was just a stone.
That didn’t make it any easier to climb though, and Bard was silently grateful that there wasn’t anyone around to see his awkward scramble up the side. Especially when he reached the top and nearly fell off the other side trying to stand up. He looked around quickly in an automatic reaction to make sure no one had seen and promptly forgot about his misstep, gaping as he took in the land around him.
Definitely a dream.
The view from the top of the rock was to say the least, stunning. As he’d initially guessed, he couldn’t see over the trees, but the scorched basin full of deadly sharp reeds, the empty plains, the edges of the land mass he stood on were clearly visible. As were the miles and miles of stars stretching out from the land’s end, distant and beautiful. Clear in midday.
It didn't seem to matter that overhead the sky was sunny, nor that the land he was standing on seemed solid and unmovable. The stars were merely there, reaching far down from beneath his feet and melting up into daylight as they neared the horizon line. Or perhaps it was the other way around, the daylight melting into the stars.
The endless expanse reminded Bard of the elves he ferried barrels for, radiant and lovely to look at, but when one truly saw, they were cold and distant, impassive. Chilled by this comparison, Bard turned to look at the as of yet unexamined plains. He didn’t even want to touch the forest, but perhaps the prairie could be salvaged?
As he pivoted, Bard’s foot caught on another jutting rock, tripping him and sending him flying forward. Too late he reached out to catch himself, fingers just barely brushing at the smooth rock. With a startled cry he fell, hurtling towards the ground with nothing to catch or cushion his fall.
The moment of impact, and then...
In a dried up inlet that had once been filled to the brim with an ever flowing sea, a small spray of water splatted the rock. Wherever it touched the stone seemed to loosen and crack, becoming browner, more giving. It dried up quickly, but for a moment it had been there, and that was far more than the past lifetime could say.
Bard opened his eyes with a gasp, grasping at anything around him, desperate to catch something and halt his fall. He’d only just managed a firm grip on rough fabric when scrapes from the recent battle protested loudly, the small sparks of pain yanking him back into reality.
Ah. A dream.
Pushing himself up to a seating position, Bard ground the palms of his hands into his eyes, trying to dispel the feeling of wrongness from the too clear world of sleep. There was enough wrong in reality without augmenting it with fantasy. And if his hands and knees hurt with faint scrapes like they’d been rubbed raw against rock, well, that was just more reminders from the battle.
As if on cue, a voice spoke from outside the crumbling building. "King Bard, your presence is requested in the meeting tent with King Thranduil as soon as is possible."
Bard winced at the title, keeping his eyes squeezed shut for a few more seconds as he drew his mind away from the automatic reminder of his ancestor’s failures. Clearing his throat he called out an answer in the affirmative, sparing a last sorrowful thought for his bed—if blankets thrown haphazardly on the stone ground could really be called that—before pulling the covers off and slipping out. A glance to his son on the other side of the room proved that dragon fire, orcs, or no, Bain would still sleep like the dead.
Once up, Bard changed his shirt to one hopefully less offensive, splashed some water from a pouch onto his face, caught a glance of himself in Sigrid's hand mirror, and promptly gave up on all appearances. If the woodland king wanted royalty he should've called on someone else. Bard was no king, just a bargeman who’d gotten a lucky shot at the dragon.
He grimaced at the uncharitable thought. Really, King Thranduil had shown no distain towards Bard before. Not at their first short meeting when he’d been a new bargeman, nor more recently when the elves brought help to Dale, or any of the times between. He had never been dressed like a king, and never had he been treated by the actual king with anything less than respect, if cold and distant. The latest time the elvenking had actually spoken to him more or less like an equal.
It was as nice as it was horrifying. Bard was no one, just a bargeman with a bow. A bargeman whom the people of Laketown and now even the elves of Mirkwood called king, and to whom the ice cold ruler of the wood elves responded as an equal.
With a shudder Bard mentally and physically turned away from the disturbing thought, clearing the room he and his son had temporarily claimed in two strides as he moved to check up on his daughters before the meeting.
After the battle there’d been no time to set up shelters—for the men at least, the elves were a different story altogether—and so the people had chosen provisional homes from the still standing buildings of Dale. The one Bard's family was in now was actually rather nice; a large, simple building with a three full sides still standing. The last side was only slightly collapsed, more broken down by time than any invading force. With some work it would eventually become a good place to live.
After checking in on the girls and satisfying himself that they were asleep and not just pretending, he moved back to his own room and shook Bain's arm lightly. It took a little escalation, but eventually his son woke with a groan. The mumbled protest he let out was almost rote, quickly ruined as he visibly remembered the events that had so recently transpired and snapped awake.
"Da?" He asked worriedly, running his eyes over his father and then glancing over to the door Bard had just exited.
Though Bard was quick to reassure Bain that everyone was safe, it felt like all the tension that left his son was transferred into stress for himself. His child was a child no longer. No one could afford a coddled childhood in a place like Laketown, but the recent death and destruction had torn the last of the childish innocence from Bain.
Still Bard didn't let the hesitation show, speaking with barely a hitch. "I’m needed at a meeting with King Thranduil, so I need you to look after your sisters. It’s nothing bad, likely just about what we’ll do now."
His son nodded, biting his lower lip, "Do you think the dwarves have changed their minds? Most of them seemed so nice when they stayed with us." He trailed off, evidently also remembering those who had not been so kind.
No. Maybe. I hope so. Bard discarded the first two immediately, giving voice only to the third, then adding, "But even if they haven't, the elves are our allies. They won’t leave us without aid."
Hopefully that bond was strong still. It would be dearly needed, especially in the coming winter. His son should’ve been too young to immediately leap to the same worry, but the uncertainty on his face could’ve been nothing else.
Even more tired at that thought, Bard smiled anyways, not wanting to leave Bain in a place with so little hope. "I'm proud of you Bain, you've done so well through this."
Bain jerked his head up look at Bard, a returning smile growing on his face. “You too da.”
Bard let out a small laugh, shaking his head in dry amusement. "I'd better not keep King Thranduil waiting." He ran one hand through his son's already sleep messed up hair and stood, grinning at Bain's offended protests.
Getting to Thranduil's tent unstopped proved something of a challenge, as it seemed that every man and his dog wanted attention or advice from the dragon killer. Wanted to know what was going to happen, if they would be staying in Dale, if he was going to send men out to salvage Laketown, if there was enough food, if he was aware of this issue, or that one, and what was he going to do about it. One day after what Bard had heard titled the Battle of The Five Armies, and everyone was desperate for someone to guide them, or to at least look like they knew what they were doing. And despite no credentials other than good aim and blood that in and of itself should’ve been a deterrent, they’d decided they wanted that of him. A bowman. A bargeman. Definitely not the savior they were looking for. He’d only stepped up because no one else was going to and someone needed to actually do something. Even with that glowing recommendation he wasn't quite sure how he'd gone from being a generally disliked if useful member of society to one looked at and called king. He did want to help these people, wanted to do what he could for them, but he had no idea if that’d even begin to be enough.
When the meeting tent finally came into view among the temporary elven structures, he shook his head, attempting to dismiss these worries from his mind. Who knew how King Thranduil would treat them now that the battle was won. The elves had helped without reason, but how long could that last?
The guard by the door gave him a nod and he ducked through the entrance, stopping when he saw the elvenking.
King Thranduil was seated at a small table by the side of the tent, the rest of it having been rearranged since he’d last been there. The planning table still sat in the middle, but that was all Bard was able to take in before his eyes were drawn to what was on the smaller table. Food. Not a ton of it, but far more—and far richer—than Bard had seen prepared in a long time.
"Come. Sit, and eat." King Thranduil commanded, sweeping his hand over the food in invitation.
It was hard not to stare as Bard approached, sitting down across from the elvenking and reminding himself that it would be impolite to grab as much of it as he could and run back to their temporary shelter to feed his children. Politeness wasn’t exactly something he held more important than taking care of his family, but he was highly aware of how far short he already fell in his negotiations with King Thranduil, and wasn’t eager to jeopardize their meeting further. Still. A salad, breadsticks, an assortment of wild and exotic fruits, slices of light meat. This food could feed his family for a week!
"You wanted to speak with me?" Bard asked, his eyes roaming over the food. Perhaps he could have a slice of the flatbread, cover it in other foods and then take the leftovers back with him?
King Thranduil let out a light laugh, the sound as void of emotion as the forest of his dream had been devoid of life. "You needn't worry about your children. I had assumed that they would still be resting now, but once they are awake they will be invited to come and eat with my people." Bard opened his mouth to argue that it was not fair that only his family should be given so much, but was cut off. "You are a king now, Bard. Of the remainders of Laketown and what will soon again be Dale. You will have to get used to a certain status apart from your people."
Bard grit his teeth and looked down, slightly ashamed that he was so easily read. Laketown already owed a debt it could never hope to repay. What was one more personal one?
"Thank you." He cleared his throat, meeting King Thranduil's eyes momentarily before changing his mind on the food and adding a couple of the fruits to his plate.
He served himself some meat as well, pausing for a moment in case the king had something to say before Bard started to eat. It was a, challenge, to say the least.
Bard didn't completely lack manners, those had been drilled into him as a child and passed on as best he could to his own children, but it was an entirely different thing when sitting across from an elf. Especially this elf, a ruler in both appearance and demeanor. King Thranduil was ethereal, in one word. A being of exquisite beauty, not one hair out of place. The pale green clothes he wore tailored to his form and the single dark emerald bracelet only highlighting his light coloring. Yet so distant and above everything around him. Consuming each piece of food with a grace that made Bard feel like a slobbering river dog. Like the stars in Bard's dream. Something to perhaps admire from afar, but always out of reach. At least he seemed as uncaring of Bard’s paltry manners as the stars were of his existence in general.
Not of course, that Bard had a problem with that, either the distance the elvenking held himself to, or the feelings he invoked. He could appreciate this elf just as much as—or maybe a little more than—he appreciated the other elves and the world would not end. He’d never speak of it, and in return perhaps Thranduil would overlook his Laketown manners. A fair trade all around.
A soft crunching noise pulled Bard out of his thoughts and he realized that he’d already finished all the food on his plate and was now just chewing on the spine of a truly amazing sweet fruit whose outer covering had appeared almost rotten. Ducking away from his frank appraisal of the elf and hoping the other had not noticed, Bard put down the spine and sat back, wiping his hands on the napkin to the side of his plate. King Thranduil was already finished eating and had cleaned his plate, placing the utensils and cup together so it'd be easy to pick up. The fruits went into a bag that Bard hadn't seen until now, and the meat and bread was wrapped in leaves. It struck Bard as something odd, that the king would clean up after his own meals, but he tried to help nevertheless, stacking his own dishes with the others. While he couldn’t imagine anyone clearing his plate for him, he would've thought the elvenking would have servants to come and do such tasks.
"Now we must speak." King Thranduil said, standing and gliding across the room to stand by the planning table. "Did you bring the stone with you?"
The stone. Likely called as such as a slight against the non-present dwarves. The Arkenstone, which the king under the mountain had so desired that he and his group had nearly killed Bilbo Baggins over in the hobbit’s attempt to prevent a war.
Nodding with a slight grimace at the jewel’s recent history, Bard pulled it from his shirt pocket, glad he had thought to bring it with him. There was the slightest disagreement with his limbs as he went to put it down, and he wondered distantly if it really was such a good idea to trade the gem back to the dwarves. It hit the table with an almost unnecessary thud.
"We’re talking about the dwarves then. And trading this for your jewels and help for the people of Laketown." Bard stated, tearing his eyes away from the jewel to meet the eyes of the King.
King Thranduil was frowning slightly as he examined Bard, and the bowman felt trapped under his gaze, stilling in an effort to not react.
"You should practice caution in where you keep that stone." The elf warned, his frown deepening as he let his eyes rest temporarily on the glowing gem. "It shares certain properties with other far more insidious artifacts of power."
It was like a bucket of cold water had been dumped over Bard, and he took a step back from the table, now looking at the gem, no, stone indeed, warily. Insidious artifacts of power? Everyone knew of the madness of the rings of Mordor. That this would share any of such evil, and that he had been keeping it so close...
"Was that what happened to Thorin? Why he refused to honor his word?" The dwarf had been rather rude while staying in Bard’s home, but had done nothing that would indicate him to be an oathbreaker.
King Thranduil tilted his head, the frown turning to something more pinched as he admitted, "As much as I would prefer to attribute his dishonor solely to the nature of dwarves, it is not unthinkable that this too played a part. Only exasperated, I imagine, by the dragon sickness now lying upon the hoard of Erebor. Not that such qualifies as an excuse. Even before the dragon came they should’ve known better."
"Dragon sickness?" Bard asked, finding himself lost as King Thranduil spoke. Just how much was he in the dark even beyond the whole king thing?
"I know much of dragons." King Thranduil said softly, turning away from Bard, the elf's left hand twitching as if to brush away a non-existent stray piece of hair. "And I know of the sickness they leave in their wake, though I myself have not felt it. Naturally hoarding creatures, dragon were once loving protectors of the living beings and lands that they took as their hoard, now twisted by evil to accept only the riches found from within rock and mines.
"Their unnatural greed for gold and gems poisons and follows them like an aura" Thranduil continued, his words as mesmerizing as they were horrifying. "Infecting that around them and settling deep into their surroundings while they slumber. All of Smaug's nest is likely poisoned with contagious greed, first of the Arkenstone, then that of the dragon as well. If the dwarves continue to devote themselves to it they will only stay under their madness."
And so wouldn't honor their agreements, nor give King Thranduil or Bard what they wanted. It was unsaid but audible all the same. More importantly for now though, did that mean they didn’t have anything Laketown wanted? If the gold carried a sickness, "Would anything moved out of the mountain carry this sickness?"
Thankfully the elvenking shook his head. "As the gold spreads through your workers and what suppliers you find, the sickness will grow thin. Away from its source and exposed to daylight it will not ensnare your people if they in their own greed do not hoard it." Bard knew of a few people who would definitely be taken then, if they had survived the battle. "And my gems are small and filled with enough elven magic to be resistant to the sickness of dragons. They will not be taken either."
Bard nodded. That was that then. They’d spread it out as far as possible, find their wealth in things other than the cursed treasure of the mountain. Simple enough with the amount of imports they’d need to survive.
"My people," He grimaced at the possessive. He had used it before, but this time he was choosing his words carefully without the heat of the moment. "Need the treasure promised in order to rebuild. We will not survive the coming winter without it, perhaps even with. Whatever happens with the dwarves, will we still have the friendship of the elves?"
King Thranduil watched Bard for a few moments, head tilted to the side like an animal faced with something they had not expected.
When he spoke, it wasn't to answer Bard's question, but to reply with one of his own. "What do you intend to do to survive this winter, dragon slayer? Will you look to rebuild Laketown or Dale?"
Taken aback at the sudden change in topic, Bard frowned. "That's not my choice. The people have lived their whole lives in Laketown, I cannot force them to move."
Raising an eyebrow, King Thranduil said nothing and yet managed to perfectly convey his disapproval. Ah. Perhaps he’d wanted Bard’s own thoughts on the matter.
"Smaug's body is still in Laketown, and the place is burned beyond recognition. If it were only me I’d rebuild Dale." He conceded, looking away at the memory of his last time in Laketown, the burned bodies and buildings, the homes sinking into the water as fire blazed and people screamed.
"Yet you intend to give them a choice." The elvenking somehow sounded scathing without even a hint of mockery in his tone, and Bard wondered distantly how the elf could convey so much with so little emotion.
"It's their lives, they should have a choice in it." He replied once he could be sure his irritation would not slip through.
"So if they were to choose Laketown you would spend far more than you can afford rebuilding the ruins of a town which barely stayed together in the first place?" King Thranduil paused, letting out a small sigh as if capitulating to an unreasonable request. "Still, if you wish to pretend, that is, I suppose, your decision.”
"They have had far too many choices taken from them under the rule of the ‘aster. I will not be like him.” Bard retorted curtly.
"No. No, you will not." King Thranduil agreed, surprising Bard. "And yet regardless, you know that you cannot survive if you try and rebuild Laketown. As king it is your responsibility to your people to bring them to the same understanding."
His responsibility as the king he had never wished to be. The people should have the chance to rebuild their homes, but they did not. It felt like surrender, but even he knew when the truth was laid out so bluntly.
Bard knew a great many people who would’ve lorded that victory over him, but Thranduil acted content to leave it there, turning away to look at the Arkenstone. "The friendship of Greenwood is with your town King Bard." Then, as though to take any presumed kindness out of the words he added, "I do hope that that won't be forgotten when Dale becomes prosperous again. You mortals have such short lifetimes.”
Stung, Bard went to argue but was cut off when King Thranduil continued, "The friendship of the dwarves however will not come to either of us. Alliances shall be made, yes, but dwarves are greedy. They care not for any beside their own."
Refraining from pointing out that elves were the same way, only more likely to pretty it up, Bard nodded slowly, choosing to move on. "I’d like to see it happen, but after speaking with Thorin I doubt they'll change their minds so quickly. Do you know if the original group survived?"
"Despite their best attempts to the contrary, the hobbit and Tauriel managed to keep Durin's kin alive throughout the battle. Whether they will survive their wounds has yet to be seen, as is who will speak for them in the meantime. Dain of the Ironhills also survived, and he is one with little time for thoughts or diplomacy." King Thranduil warned in a backhanded way, and even Bard could catch the uneasy distain on his face as he spoke of Tauriel, followed by annoyance for Dain.
Since learning that Tauriel was the reason his family made it out alive, Bard had nothing but thankfulness for the elf, and it was good to hear between the lines that she had survived. The hobbit too, as he’d been one of the easiest to deal with while the company had paraded through Laketown. Not to mention the one who give them their bargaining chip, something he’d nearly been killed for. While Bard had heard of Master Baggins’ escapades in King Thranduil’s dungeons, he didn’t know what the elvenking had against Tauriel. Nor did he think Thranduil was quite settled with it.
Bard was saved from needing to respond when voice requested entry from outside, an elf ducking in with King Thranduil’s assent to inform him of something in Sindarin.
The king nodded in response, turning back to Bard. "Your children have arrived, if you'd care to join them.”
Bard stood straighter, so well conditioned to respond to his children’s needs that he was already moving to see them when King Thranduil spoke again, stopping him in his tracks. “We will both need to deal with the dwarves in the coming days. As such, I trust that we will be dealing with them together."
Though it was phrased like a statement, Bard was both surprised and gratified to hear a note of questioning in the second statement, as if his cooperation wasn’t being taken for granted.
Bard nodded, deciding to be appreciative of King Thranduil’s deference. "Given what’s already happened, I don’t think it would be in either of our best interests to deal with them alone.”
King Thranduil inclined his head in agreement. When nothing else seemed forthcoming, Bard gathered up the Arkenstone and slipped out of the tent. Making sure the stone was not in his breast pocket.
The rest of the day only became busier from there, and soon the meeting slipped to the back of his mind. If he’d known there was so much work involved in being a ‘king’, he’d have, well. Done the same thing. It was far better than the death and destruction that had come before.
Whatever rest he might’ve thought he would get after the battle was lost amidst checking on his children to make sure they were not too uncomfortable with the elves—Tilda definitely wasn't, questioning them on everything from how they keep their hair so neat to what distant lands had they traveled—talking to people who came to him with their own questions and requests, and bustling around attempting to get answers and fill said requests. The sun had long since fallen before he thought about that morning’s meeting again.
Bard had just gotten back to the house his family had claimed—and would probably keep, considering it was spacious enough for all of them and very convenient its location—when an elf appeared seemingly from thin air to walk beside him.
He didn't recognize her, even when she spoke in a slightly lower tone than he’d come to expect of a female elf. "My king wishes to inform you that the hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, will be speaking for the dwarves of Erebor, and there will be a meeting tomorrow morning as the sun rises."
"The hobbit is speaking for the dwarves?" Bard repeated incredulously.
When had that happened, and why? Master Baggins had been polite when Bard had met him, and he couldn’t see the meeting devolving as it might were they speaking with certain dwarves he could name, but a hobbit speaking for the dwarves? He’d have never guessed that such a proud race would let an outsider speak for them. It’d be like a human speaking for the elves, or if one wanted to be very drastic, an elf for the orcs. Would Master Baggins’ voice actually hold enough weight to have anything agreed upon?
“Indeed.” She replied, adding nothing more. After a long pause Bard thanked her somewhat awkwardly and she left as if dismissed, disappearing as quickly as she’d arrived.
The hobbit had been one of the most reasonable of those who had gone to Erebor, having already proved that while he wished his dwarves to live, he would try and do what was best for everyone. If he did have authority here it could end with a better outcome than Bard could've hoped for after having dealt with Thorin. Dain then would be the only one bringing the greed of dwarves into their dealings.
Bard shook his head, all of a sudden exhausted. He was thinking like King Thranduil might, painting over an entire race with their less than positive attributes. Then again the past few days had shattered many of his misconceptions about the goodness of dwarves. Bringing only fire and ruin, then turning their backs without even a reason. Well, greed for gold as a reason, but gold was nothing when held up against the cost of lives.
Trying to drive away such morose thoughts, Bard slipped inside the house, smiling to see his children already gathered in the entry room, playing with a deck of cards they must’ve found somewhere. It was a weight off his back to sit with them, asking them how their days had been and how they were.
He wasn’t surprised to learn that Tilda had chosen to help the healers and Sigrid the cooks, as Tilda was frequently jumping back and forth between hobbies and Sigrid had always loved baking. His daughters sounded, if not happy, satisfied with the jobs they had chosen, the slightly haunted look in their eyes something they all avoided speaking of. Bard was glad to know at least that they would be in safe areas, even if Tilda would be dealing with matter a little more gruesome than he’d have liked.
Bain on the other hand had gone to help sort supplies, finding out what they had and what still needed to be found or put together. The boy had always had a head for numbers and words, eagerly solving puzzles with Tilda when she’d gone through her puzzling phase. Bard had tried to nurture that in him, despite caring little for the activity himself beyond what was needed for his job. That Bain was now able to use those skills to help was something Bard was very pleased. That his job also involved the marking down of those who still lived and those who did not was not so reassuring. Still it was less scarring than if Bain had decided to join those who were cleaning up the battlefield, respectfully collecting the fallen, and pulling orcs and goblins aside to burn. There was no official command that the creatures not be looted, but Bard had seen more than one person carrying something that looked like it came from an orc over the course of the day. There was an official command to not do the same to the men, elves, and dwarves, and he could only hope that it was being followed.
In turn Bard told them snatches of his own day, trying not to coddle them, but also avoiding things that might have them unnecessarily worried. He told them of the meeting the next morning with the dwarves and that he'd be gone when they woke. Mostly he let them talk.
It wasn’t long before Sigrid was ushering them all to bed, stating quite firmly that the four of them were alive and would all need rest for the coming morning.
She had been the one to step up as caretaker in place of her mother early on, and though Bard hated such a task falling upon her, he knew he could not do everything without burning out and leaving them worse off than before. With the whole ‘king’ thing, it was likely to only get harder.
Bard was asleep before his head hit the rolled up jacket posing as a pillow.
Chapter 3: A Meeting and an Unexpected Guest
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.
Chapter 4: An Initial Interlude
Much of the world had changed while his gaze was elsewhere. Many things were different. Many people were different. Even more rules that had held firm for centuries were now casually broken, nary a thought to their impossibilities. It happened amongst the men, the dwarves, the hobbits, and the fell creatures of the night. It happened even amongst the elves, and yet perhaps the biggest case of impossibilities becoming suddenly possible was standing in front of him, a contrite look on the intruder’s face as he cringed from the words he’d just given voice.
Had anyone else said such a thing they would've been smart to fear, but here in his own dreamscape it was easy to keep his calm, practiced to relax. The dreamer wouldn't say that his first instinct hadn't been a severe tongue-lashing, merely that it was easier to remain composed, to know that this was a quiet place, and to acknowledge that the intruder didn't know any of this was real. With that break from reality, safety was restored.
At first when faced with an intruder in the only safe place he had left, a mix of fury and confusion had almost overcome him. He’d wanted to know how said intruder had gotten into his dreamscape and why the other was there. In the initial moment he hadn’t even cared why the other was there, only wanted him out.
Then, before he could give voice to either rage or slowly growing confusion, he’d been brushed off, asked such a ridiculously menial question that he hadn't known how to respond. It was only when further prodding revealed that the intruder thought himself in an unreal dream, that a sort of peace fell over the actual dreamer. The realization of security in being thought fake was comforting at first, but soon opened up all sort of doors. To be thought a delusion meant that he could speak without care. Whatever actual opinions he had or thoughts he couldn’t usually give voice to, here he could speak aloud without concern of consequence. The intruder would never know this world was as real as the one he walked daily.
That it was this man of the vast many helped.
Not only was he a new king, but also a reasonable one whom the dreamer himself had, to an extent, taken under his wing. Indeed, how could he do less when faced between the other options of either letting him fall or having him taught by the dwarves? The very thought was enough to make him shudder. Dwarves, ensnaring the new king before anything could be done to counter their appalling influences. It was beyond imagining. Especially with this king. In a word, he was, interesting. Almost glorious in his righteous anger against that which brings harm to those who were his, trying to protect everyone he could. So passionately standing up to the dreamer and speaking with him as if they were equals even before they were. Not cowering in the face of elven royalty like so many humans did, instead approaching him high on his elk and speaking words of humble but strong gratitude. Later on when the dreamer gave advice, going willingly with almost too much trust in matters he had little hope of understanding, while carefully contemplating those he did. If the dreamer were a crueler person, ah, but he is not, and it is not worth thinking of. Especially not here where the new king was a potential sounding board for whatever thought might come the dreamer’s way.
So while in the waking world the dreamer would have no qualms about responding to the intruder’s question with cold fury, here such a defense was unnecessary. There’d be chastising of course, but only enough to teach the man of when tact might be used more appropriately.
It would be nice to have someone to talk to.
Chapter 5: A Confusing Explanation
“Indeed, as your kind rarely cares for the subtleties of speech.” King Thranduil continued, not even pretending to keep the patronizing tone out of his words. “Your use of a statement instead of an outright question was, I’ll admit, well done, but your lack of any semblance of tact certainly wouldn’t do you any favors with those less inclined towards patience than I.” King Thranduil thought himself patient? “And yet once something has been spoken, it cannot return. It will gain you no favours as king.”
Bard frowned, opened his mouth, closed it, and then decided, who cared about tact, this Thranduil wasn’t even real. “You never hesitate to insult others.”
“And my kingdom has existed since long before your ancestors were even thoughts in their ancestor’s heads.” Thranduil retorted lightly. “You are a new king, of a new city. When you have the strength and wisdom to face your enemies, then you may make them. Until then, stand with strength and without offence.”
That was, surprisingly good advice actually.
Still, “I’m as new as you say, but I know when I’ve done something wrong, and I have unintentionally insulted you before. And don’t tell me it’s because you’re patient, don’t forget I’ve seen you with the dwarves.” Bard added sharply before Thranduil could answer.
The imitation of the elvenking looked amused, and paused before answering, as if waiting for Bard to interrupt again. Not that he had any intentions of doing so. Again, he knew this wasn’t the real Thranduil, but it would be nice to have an answer, even if one snatched from the depths of his sub-consciousness.
“If you must know, I find you interesting.” For all that the words sounded as bland as they could while coming from such an ethereal being, the small smirk tilting Thranduil’s lips up gave them a quality Bard couldn’t quite flesh out.
Frowning at the non-response, Bard clarified, “And so you’ve brushed off any insult I’ve unintentionally offered, and have been helping me, all because I’m ‘interesting’?”
There was another pause, and just as Thranduil opened his mouth to give what Bard had little hope was a clear, understandable answer, the world seemed to blink and the bargeman was staring up at a stone roof shrouded in Dale’s early morning darkness.
Chapter 6: A Second Interlude
The intruder disappeared before the dreamer had even started twisting a pretty misdirection. A slightly surprised silence spread for long enough to confirm that the other was indeed gone, and then all other pretenses fled.
The glamour that covered much of the dreamer’s upper left side dissolved into thin air, and he let himself relax a bit more as the strain of holding it up in a place designed without lies was released. Again glancing around, this time through the only eye he had left that actually worked, the dreamer fully took in the changes that the intruder’s presence had distracted him from. Everything the intruder had touched was an anomaly, but he himself was the biggest of them all, and the dreamer had not been able to keep his gaze away for long. Now though, with the largest incongruity gone, he stared like an elfling their first time past the safety zone inside Greenwood. Or perhaps, not like that at all. When an elf stepped from their home in Greenwood they found decay and a slow, shuddering death. Here, well, there was no life, not yet. Nothing close to how it been so many years ago. But there was apparently a promise left behind.
Mortals wasted years on sleep, and though this one had stated that he did not spend all his time working, the dreamer knew of the kind of mortal he was well enough to know he would not settle to leave this place with the work half finished. Indeed, the intruder’s own sense of duty was as good as a written agreement, even if it ended up stretching the entire blink of an eye his life would last.
A promise made to someone who didn’t even know if they wanted such an assurance. For so long this place had remained empty, changing that now seemed almost like a betrayed. Still, the dreamer took comfort in the knowledge that though the intruder could drag change across the entire dreamscape like a herd of greedy dwarves, nothing could truly happen without his input. Life could not survive without water after all, and the emotion needed to bring forth said liquid was not something the dreamer had felt in an age.
Still, he couldn’t help but wonder what the intruder would do. He was not, as the dreamer had discovered early on in their acquaintance, as greedy as a herd of dwarves, nor was he as conceited as the rest of his race. The intruder was an irregularity rare seen amongst his kind. So for now, the dreamer would wait. He would sit back and watch.
See what became of this unspoken promise.
Chapter 7: A Gracious Piece of Flattery
Thranduil was not there the next night, nor was he there the night after that. It had been an oddity that the elf had been there in the first place though, and so Bard was content to put it behind him, focusing instead on his work. His work at night had always been satisfying, and slowly but surely his work during the say was becoming, if not satisfying as well, then at least productive. Workers were steadily arriving, missives were being sent and returning. Somewhat unexpectedly it was discussing new laws and policies that took most of Bard’s time. Most of the time it was with his people, but sometimes he’d reach out to the neighboring kingdoms as well. One thing after another, and even while exchanging letters with the real elvenking, his presence in the dream slipped from Bard’s mind.
Until the night he was there again.
“Gideon had no elvish ancestry.” The sudden voice cut through the calm fog in Bard’s mind and he fumbled on his precarious balance, catching himself an a nearby rock and leaving an ugly gouge behind.
Taking a deep breath, Bard rested his forehead against the rock for a few moments before leaning back and safely climbing down the wall. He’d only been there a couple of hours that night, at first just sitting, then hauling rocks up the wall to place them and let them return to their unyielding state. He’d long since gotten over the impossibility of it all, but that did not mean he wanted to test his death in the place. Again.
Reaching the ground, Bard ignored the amused lit to Thranduil’s lips as he stumbled. Yes, he was tired. No, it wasn’t very funny. The day had been a wearisome one, and he’d had to deny people unreasonable requests, standing firm in the face of their judgement and anger. He was used to both, but it was different when it was for something he’d actually done, rather than unfounded slander. Honestly he wasn’t even sure why he’d decided to try his hand at working again that night. With everything going on, he just felt worn out.
“And I would know of anything more recent.” The elf king continued, striding towards Bard and stopping directly in front of him, flickering his eyes over the bargeman in cool examination.
Bard frowned, wondering if he really had the energy to deal with Thranduil that night. “I’ve no elvish blood.”
The other returned the frown, but instead of continued he simply commented, “You are tired.” The was a pause in which Bard wondered if it would be rude to acknowledge the elf for pointing out the obvious, but Thranduil continued before he could make a decision. “Working all day, then coming here to work more. As a mortal, you should know you need rest, lest you wear yourself out.”
A nod in response didn’t seem to satisfy him. “I was fine up until now-” A huff from the king broke through the excuse, and Bard stopped, taken aback. “What?” He asked
“You were not fine until now. You’d merely not noticed yourself slowing down until it all hit at once.” Thranduil turned away, moving to the rock he’d sat upon the time before. “Come.” He called over his shoulder. “Sit, before you collapse.”
Too tired to argue the man followed, stopping at the bottom of the rock while Thranduil effortlessly scaled it. “I hope you don’t expect me to get up there on my own.” He said, looking around for a path to climb up. “We’ve already established my lack of elven blood, and you’d be the first to say us mortals aren’t nearly as graceful.”
He had the feeling that Thranduil would be rolling his eyes if it weren’t so undignified. Instead the elf let out a soundless sigh filled with resignation. Then, in a move that took away all credence gained from not rolling his eyes, the elf scooted forward like one of Bard’s children, extending a hand down to the man. It took a moment, but when Bard’s tired mind figured out the purpose of the gesture he froze, staring up at the elf with wide eyes. Was Thranduil seriously intending on pulling him up to join him?
“I am an ancient being who has fought in many battles, and held my own against dark creature you would not even dream of, Bard. Do not think of me as incapable of lifting one human such a short distance.”
Bard looked away, having not meant his thoughts to be painted quite so clearly across his face. Then again, as an ‘ancient being’, Thranduil would’ve probably been able to read them anyway.
Shaking off his embarrassment, he stepped forward, planting one foot on the rock and pushing off to leap upwards, grasping the elf’s hand. It was a slight shock to realize that this was the first time he’s purposefully touched the elf. They’d brushed accidently before, but that’d been very different from this intentional skin on skin.
Bard hadn’t believed the tales that said Thranduil was made of ice, but he hadn’t thought the other would burn so.
True to his word Thranduil easily pulled Bard up to the top of the rock, clasping a hand on his shoulder to help him the last way up. It was a little humbling, to be so easily lifted by someone so slender. Not to say Thranduil didn’t look like the warrior he was, only that even after the Battle of the Five Armies, some part of Bard’s mind had managed to keep the image of elves as fragile creatures. A delusion he really needed to dismiss.
Somewhat unexpectedly, the two of them sat in silence at the top of the rock, and though Bard found the warmth and company surprisingly pleasant, he couldn’t stop himself from shifting in place, finally caving into the desire to speak.
“What do you think needs to be done next?”
Thranduil tilted his head towards Bard, a golden cascade of hair falling in front of his face before he casually brushed it back. He had to have noticed Bard’s staring, but let it go on long enough that Bard had almost zoned out before answering. “Where do you intend to get the water?”
Or not answering.
“I’ve no idea.” He admitted, finally looking away from the stunning view, to the suddenly lackluster sight of the island around them. “I planned on finishing the rest first.” He snorted softly. “Other than cutting my arms and hoping this place turns my blood into water, I haven’t the slightest idea where it’ll come from.”
Thranduil whipping his head around to stare at Bard in shock nearly had the man jumping, and he stared back, wondering if morbid humor wasn’t as common in Mirkwood as it was in Laketown.
“I don’t actually think it would come to that.” He said carefully hoping he’d not gone too far, as he was actually enjoying sitting with the elf. To keep the conversation going, he asked, “Do you have any ideas?”
Thranduil inclined his head in something that wasn’t quite agreement, offering no answer. The man sighed, accepting that for now he wouldn’t get any answer from the figment of the tight lipped king. At least he didn’t look so horribly offended anymore.
Turning away again, he proceeded to stare out over the basin, taking in the changes. It was quite different since he’d first arrived, and he was rather proud of the work done.
Dirt, crushed up reeds, and a partially built new wall. It was all coming together into something resembling a lake. Or an enclosed dried up lake. Perhaps more of a pond. He hadn’t had that in mind while working on it, but he supposed it had been instinctual to make it something familiar. While he thought it had before born similarities to the sea, he’d never actually seen it, and couldn’t say so with all certainty. This looked better anyways. Or, again, more familiar. Like the water that surrounded his home. It hadn’t been the nicest of homes, but it was all he had known in his life, and all his children knew too. All they would have ever known had it not been for the dragon destroying it. Now, with Dale and given that there was some good will coming their way, they might be able to see more. More than Bard would ever see. Perhaps one day they would even go to the sea.
Tilda might want to see it. She’d always been interested in helping people, much like Bard before he became so calloused with life and the Master. She was still currently finding joy in making and patching up clothes for people to survive the winter, but Bard didn’t know how long that would last. Likely not her next interest, nor the one after that, but perhaps eventually she’d discover a passion that would bring her there. Not for the place itself, but the people living on its coast.
It wasn’t likely that Bain would ever visit, unless it was on something like a diplomatic trip. He was in line for and would do well as the next king of Dale, though he loved numbers and working with accounting more. Sigrid though, Bard would not be surprised if Sigrid decided to go to the sea. She’d always been a free spirit, and though he’d never wanted that spirit stifled, the reality of Laketown hadn’t let it grow. Now she could leave and go anywhere. Well, anywhere within reason.
Reason and food, Bard smirked.
Sigrid loved food. Eating it, yes, but making it especially. Whenever spice merchants came through Laketown she was one of the first to go and speak to them, even with no money to spend. Cooking had always been a favorite of hers. Even back when her mother was alive and Sigrid was tiny, she’d waddle around whenever her mother was cooking, a huge grin on her face and flour covering her hands and everything she touched. Bard had been more amused than offended when he’d been kicked out of the kitchen in favor of the toddler. He had little skill when it came to preparing food, and his wife hadn’t let him forget it. The smirk faded sadly. Bard didn’t know if those memories were the reason Sigrid had grown up loving cooking so much, but he wouldn’t be surprised if they were a factor.
“Where has Legolas gone? I haven’t seen him since the end of the battle.” Bard broke the silence before it became too much, then had to control a cringe when he remembered that the last time he’d seen Thranduil’s son it had been out of the corner of his eye, while the elf was defying his king’s orders.
Still, Thranduil didn’t seem angry, letting out a soft sight and slumping. An unkingly gesture, except that for Thranduil, slumping meant a slight lowering of his eyes, and a minor relaxing about his shoulders.
Surprisingly, Thranduil actually answered. “He’s decided to go west, as he no longer feels he belongs in my woods. “
This time Bard didn’t contain his flinch, and he looked away. “My condolences.”
Thranduil shook his head, smiling wryly “I always knew Legolas wanted for more than the borders of my kingdom. There’s a longing in him for the world beyond even the elves. He’s traveled before, of course, but this time I feel is different.” The worry was plain in his voice. “Far further than before.”
What a sad start to a journey.
Bard would let his children go if they truly wished it, but he would worry, and he would never want them to leave if their relationship was so strained that they felt they didn’t belong with him anymore. Beyond the normal worry a parent has for their child, it would be far too much.
“Where to the west is he going?”
Thranduil shrugged, the motion fluid and inhuman. “I know not where he will end up. We’ve spoken briefly of someone I know, living amongst the Rivendell elves, but I cannot see the path he will end up taking. That will be his own.”
“Sigrid’s like that too.” Bard commented before the silence could grow stretched. “We’ve lived in Laketown our whole lives, but I always knew she was meant for more.”
Thranduil cocked his head to the side, a brief smile touching his mouth. “Yes, she had many questions for my elves and I. Always wanting to know of the places we’ve been and things we’ve seen. The foods we eat.” This was said with a light laugh, and Bard relaxed somewhat, having been worried Thranduil might’ve found her questions annoying. “Your youngest, Tilda, I believe, is another who’s quite fond of questions, though I daresay she prefers giving her own answers rather than being told them. I learned far more about baskets weaving in a single conversation with her than I’ve ever before known or wanted to. You’ve very knowledgeable children.”
Smiling fondly at the reminder of Tilda’s endless curiosity, Bard shifted more comfortably on the stone. While it was true she was curious about everything and asked the most indiscriminate of questions, she tended to jump from topic to topic too quickly to really understand. The things that caught her passions though, those she could stay focused on for months. Laketown’s old weaver—the only one they had had, dead now from Smaug—had learned that well when Tilda visited every day for a month and a half, wanting to know everything she could about the art.
“I hope they weren’t bothering you” Bard spoke on that last thought, turning to Thranduil with a raised eyebrow.
The other shook his head. “We don’t have the chance to see many children, so any are welcome. Yours in particular are a joy to be around.”
Bard paused, taken aback. He had never really thought about immortal beings and children before. It made sense though, that they wouldn’t be able to have many, lest they overpopulate and run out of space and resources. It was still sad though. Children were wonderful, no matter how wearing they could be sometimes. He hadn’t known Thranduil thought so highly of his though, hadn’t even known he’d spent enough time around them to form an opinion.
“Thank you.” He said quietly, watching the elf out of the corner of his eye.
Thranduil’s smile held for a couple more moments before he became serious again, catching Bard’s eye and nonverbally demanding his full attention.
“You are far too uncomfortable around those you see as your betters.” He chastised, and instantly Bard tensed up again, recalling that he was sitting next to King Thranduil, and not just any old person. The reaction had King Thranduil sighing, and the elf shook his head. “I do not say that to have you on your guard, but exactly the opposite. Whether you like it or not, you are a king now Bard. You need to learn to act like one in the presence of equals, whether they’re of men or elves. The more on edge you are, the more mistakes you will make.”
Wincing at the truth in that statement, Bard forced himself to relax again, trying to find that communal mindset he had had just moments before when they were talking about their children. When King Thranduil was just Thranduil.
“I notice you didn’t mention dwarves” He joked, if slightly more tentative than before.
Thranduil smirked, inclining his head. “I have never met a dwarf who was my equal. I therefore see no reason to guide you in such illusions.”
Bard laughed. The whole rivalry was annoying as anything during the day, but the way Thranduil could be so blunt about it was amusing in its own way. “I’m flattered that you see me in a higher light than the dwarves.”
“Of course,” Thranduil retorted, “Though do not act under the impression that that makes you special. It isn’t hard to be better than a dwarf.”
Shaking his head, Bard let himself relax again. He personally didn’t have much against dwarves, but he didn’t have much for them either. He’d found them to be suspicious as a whole, and unpleasant half the time to deal with in meetings. Still, he had none of the hatred that Thranduil carried, though he was curious about where it came from. Then again, his connection with Thranduil might very well be why they were so confrontational. It would make sense, considering their closeness as allies.
Still, today wasn’t the time to be getting onto such a topic. Or tonight, rather. Tonight, and it wouldn’t matter even if Bard did ask, as this Thranduil wasn’t real, something he needed to stop forgetting. It likely wouldn’t be a big deal, as Bard couldn’t see himself being so comfortable with the real King Thranduil to mention any of the topics they’d covered, but it would be for the best.
Shaking his head, Bard leaned back on his arms, content to sit with Thranduil for the rest of the night, even if none of it was real.
The rest of the dream was spent in silence, comfortable and calm.
Chapter 8: A Time-lapse and A Scar
The months came and went, falling into a very similar pattern to the first month, taking breaks, but never slowing down enough to become monotonous. The days were split between work, both diplomatic and laborious, and time spent with his children when one or all of them were free at the same time he was. At first his nights were just as solely devoted to work as ever, but slowly, over the course of time, Thranduil had begun showing up more and more, until he was there nearly every night. Bard had worried about feeling smothered as he was always being surrounded by people—goodness knew he was never alone during the days—but Thranduil was easy to be around. His Thranduil of course, the real King Thranduil was still rather intimidating. Still, the differences between Thranduil and King Thranduil made it easy to separate the two of them. King Thranduil was cold and distant, though helpful and polite enough to inquire after Bard and his family though their letters, while Bard’s dream Thranduil was open and relaxed, easy to speak with on a number of topics, and always aware of when Bard needed silence more than conversation.
Even though Thranduil never helped with Bards reparations to the island, he never hindered either, and Bard got a kick out of the elf’s reactions each time Bard found a new method of repairing the dream. King Thranduil rarely showed more than a ghost of emotion, but Thranduil’s eyes would widen and he’d look torn between investigating closer and fleeing the scene of whatever new reality breaking thing Bard had found in his quest to return life to the place. Then, after he’d finally decided which path to take—usually investigating further—he’d look at Bard like he’d done something incredible, and was even more confused as to whether that was a good thing or not
It might’ve been off putting, but the expression Thranduil wore when Bard finished whatever repair he’d found made up for it. Sparks of sorrow, yes, but it was all drowned out by the contentment he hastily covered up when he noticed Bard looking. Evidently Thranduil wasn’t used to the lack of limitations in human dreaming. Or, at least, Bard’s imagined Thranduil wasn’t.
When the basin was finished they moved to the rocky beach, and it was there that Thranduil really started to participate in the building. Nothing physical of course, though Bard was sure the elf would bring his race’s signature grace to whatever kind of menial labor he might do, instead working on delegation. The outsides of the rock walls needed to be smoothed to Thranduil’s exact specifications, and while they were on it, they might as well go back for the inside as well. It he was going to be turning the ground there, he should carve out a hollow too. No, that wasn’t a good place to end the line of rocks, it needed to be a couple paces further. The constant instruction slowed down Bard’s progress, but he couldn’t help but find it entertaining. Thranduil was almost like a child in his fussiness, and Bard humored the elf like he would one of his own children, not minding the extra work for the amusement of teasing Thranduil about it.
Thranduil also insisted on rest days, putting his foot down on days when Bard was working when the elf thought he shouldn’t be, and dragging him into walks or conversations to distract him if he needed it. Gradually their conversations changed from small talk with the odd serious topic to deep conversations that often had to be put on hold for waking hours only to start up again the next night.
They spoke of their children, of their lives, of their loves, lost and found. Of dreams and desires, small pleasures and guilty ones. Bard spoke of things he’d never mentioned to anyone else, and night by night, he began to lean on the other for comfort and understanding. When the Master had ruled Laketown Bard’s status as a pariah had done nothing for making friends, and as a king people would rarely approach him without an ulterior motive in mind. It was no surprise then, that as time passed, Bard realized that other than his children, maybe even including them given the number of burdens he couldn’t force them to bear, Thranduil became his greatest friend.
It was not only Bard who shared his secrets, and during a still night after one of the few calm days in Dale the elf unwittingly revealed a major one of his own.
Dirt parted under Bard’s fingers as he drew meaningless shapes on the ground, the mindless activity such that he could sink into it, but not so enthralling that he missed the sharp ozone signaling Thranduil’s arrival. Turning with a smile and a greeting already on his lips, Bard jerked, staring at the haggard elvenking. Nothing was really amiss by human standards, but Bard had spent enough time with his friend to see that something was wrong. Clothing ruffled, shoulders hunched, and hair apparently un-brushed and covering half his face. Something was definitely wrong.
Quick to jump to his feet, Bard took a step towards the other, not bothering to dial back his concern as he asked, “Are you-“ and cut himself off, frozen in surprise as Thranduil’s full face because visible.
One half was haggard yes, but practically as flawless as usual, while the other half was one big scar, creeping down from his left hairline, across his eye and just touching the side of his mouth before running down the side of his neck and under his collar. Bard could see tendons and veins, the wound clearly painful and from the raw edges of it newly burnt. With a start, he realized that the king was now blind in his left eye. It explained so much, yet this had to be new, and surely couldn’t be the reason so many of Thranduil’s gestures were only now clicking into place.
With a shake of his head, Bard flicked the thoughts away. Answers could wait until later.
"What happened?" He demanded, ignoring all propriety to grasp Thranduil's face in his hands, careful to avoid touching the wound as he tilted his face to better see it. "Does it hurt? Of course it does. What can I do?"
Bard thought it was rather unfair that the elf looked so shocked, given that Bard was the one unexpectedly faced with his friend so grievously hurt, but figured with the amount of pain he must be in he could be given a free pass for being surprised at Bard’s presence there. Even as Bard was going to ask again, all emotion was wiped away, the blank mask of King Thranduil sliding seemlessly into place.
"It only aches now. There’s nothing to be done."
“’Only aches now’?” Bard repeated, his eyes roving over the elf’s exposed flesh, “When did this happen? Why hasn’t anything been done?”
"Many, many years ago." His friend replied quietly, cutting off any scolding Bard might’ve given him as Thranduil closed his eyes tiredly. "The dwarves of Erebor are not the only ones to know dragon fire."
The memory of fear and dragon fire over Laketown was bad enough in its own right. To think that there was another dragon, well, it wasn’t something Bard wanted to consider, not beyond the thought that the elves must’ve taken care of it, because surely Thranduil wouldn’t let a wound like that go unpunished. His thoughts only stopped racing when Thranduil lightly covered Bard’s hand where it still rested on the elf’s face. The intimacy of the moment was unexpected enough to stall his worry, and though not unwelcome it made him flounder. Even further when he relaxed to hand to let Thranduil go and the elf didn’t take the out.
Trying to get his footing back, he asked, "Why can I see it now and not before?"
Thranduil sighed, finally releasing Bard. "Because I am tired, and it is harder to keep up the illusion here."
"Then why do you even have it?” He knew the elves were vain, but really, tiring himself out nightly just to hide a scar?
Looking again surprised, this time at Bard’s question, Thranduil cocked his head to the side, narrowing his eyes. "Is does not bother you?"
The man frowned. "Why would it? It shows you've survived a dragon. You won."
There were many in Laketown who bore scars from Smaug’s breath, and while some had indeed embraced their markings as proof of life, too many viewed them with disgust as marks of a tragedy. Bad enough for his people, for that to be Thranduil’s mindset too actually hurt Bard. That the elf would think of himself as anything less than wonderful was a travesty.
A humorless chuckled preceded Thranduil’s answer as he turned away, keeping the scared side facing hidden from sight. "It is ugly, terrible to look at. I would not subject another to such a sight."
“It’s not ugly at all.” Bard denied, unconsciously straightening his shoulders as he glared at the elf. “It only adds to your beauty if anything, because it shows that you’re still here. You survived, and if a scar is what speaks to prove that then I will only be more thankful because I was able to meet you.”
He winced as the last part slipped out, but stood strong even as Thranduil shot him a surprised glance, considering the human for a few moments because his lips turned softly up at the corners.
“Yes” He agreed. “I suppose I did.”
There were a hundred more things that Bard wanted to ask or say after that, but Thranduil seamlessly slipped into a different topic all together, lamenting some new spider nests that had popped up in the Greenwood, and explaining how he was setting up a team of elves to take them down from the source. He’d been putting it off for far too long, he admitted, but that was no longer possible with the darkness growing in the south-east.
Acknowledging that he had won a small victory here, but would get no further if he pursued the topic, Bard accepted the conversation change, sitting on a nearby rock and leaving enough space for the elf to sit beside him. Thranduil’s words stuttered for a second as they both realized the offered seat would place Bard at his left, but before Bard could come up with a subtle way to switch, the elf had already sat, movements a little too accented to completely at ease. When Bard did nothing but prompt him to continue his conversation, Thranduil relaxed, and soon was sitting again almost as casually as normal.
The two of them sat and talked about meaningless things for the rest of the night, and the illusion never went back up.
Chapter 9: An Orange Glow
Even with Thranduil’s many helpful directions, the beach didn’t take nearly as long as the basin had, something Bard didn’t let on that he was thankful for. It wasn’t that he didn’t like the beach, it was just a, strange, place, he supposed. Yes, strange would be the best word to describe it. Reality was so obviously bent there, even more so than the rest of the island, when one could see out to the edges. Looking from his feet up to the horizon line and then to the sky’s zenith, he almost got vertigo from the unnatural change. Rocks, pebbly and dark, slowly shrinking down to sand as they got further out, finally fading into black at some unknown edge, with only the distant specs of stars to mark the change. Further up and the stars—thick at first—became sparser, turning into the light sky of the dream, whatever time of day it was showing at the moment. Ignoring the three lower quarters of his vision at the horizon line, he could almost make the mistake of thinking he’d look down and find himself back in Laketown or Dale, watching the sky to guess the time as he went about his day.
Still, while he was glad to move on from the beach and that unsettling horizon for now, there was always more to do, and another two months passed before he and Thranduil moved to the strip of prairie outside the basin. He was able to see more of the dead forest there, but Thranduil subtly distracted him every time his attention became too focused.
It might’ve been irritating if there wasn’t so much to be done on the prairie, but as it was he would just smile knowingly and go with the prodding. When he noticed, that was. Thranduil was very good at being subtle, and oftentimes he’d only make the connection later on, if he did at all. It was easy to be distracted. The drought had killed all of the plants, and the inconsistent wind had pulled the weaker ones from the ground, shaping the stronger ones and the ground around them. The ground itself must’ve at one point been soil, and while Bard was determined to force it back, it was even harder than the stuff he’d found in the basin. Turning it was a thankless job, and night after night was devoted to it.
He might’ve temporarily given up or moved on if it weren’t for Thranduil. The other still didn’t physically help, but their conversation let Bard relax into the work, ignoring how hard it was for the enjoyment of talking with his friend. They’re already spoken so much, yet there was always more to add. From the uncertainties involved in ruling to the varied relationships with their children, and then to the vulnerabilities and downsides of immortality.
Bard had already known how much Thranduil loved his children, but though their conversations he also learned that Thranduil no longer knew how to speak with them since he’d unintentionally distanced himself with their mothers passing. How two of them had left Mirkwood—though Thranduil always called it Greenwood—altogether, moving to live among other elves Thranduil only knew by name. When Legolas left after the battle, Thranduil had been crushed, far more than he’d let on in their earlier conversations around children. He’d let him go because he didn’t know how to ask his youngest to stay, and didn’t think it was fair to do so besides. He worried and feared for all his children, out there in a world that was slowly growing darker and less fit for the immortal elves with memories far better than could be considered healthy. The amount of death Thranduil had seen was stunning, and Bard realized just how little though he’d given to the ramifications of being immortal. Of living on while all others died around you. Unfeeling elven king indeed. How jaded one must be to have experienced all that Thranduil had, and yet how caring to still be impacted by it.
In return Bard offered what solace he could, and shared his own experiences with his children. He wasn’t sure how well he did, but Thranduil seemed to appreciate Bard’s attempts, welcoming hearing about the man’s own troubles.
Bard started as haltingly as Thranduil had in his thoughts, but soon he too was divulging the worries that followed him, his own thoughts and troubles, speaking of cold nights in Laketown, wanting to do his best by his children but finding it so hard in a town where the Master hated him and the people therefore shunned him for fear of the man. Where the only job he could get where he had even a measure of freedom was ferrying barrels from the elven kingdom, and even then the Master often stuck his unwelcome fingers into Bard’s business. Of feeling like he was failing his children, even now that doors were opened for them, by simply not knowing what was and was not acceptable. What was concern and when did it become smothering? He knew he wasn’t capable of viewing his children as subjects, and had no desire to do so, but how was he supposed to view subjects anyway? Was he doing well in the compromise he’d found, of appeasing as many as he could while still doing the right thing?
Though Thranduil could rarely offer a solution to Bard’s problems with his children, he returned the listening acceptance Bard had given him, and seemed almost eager, in his own way, to help with Bard’s worries as a king.
Much of Thranduil’s advice was understandable and well thought out, and more and more Bard had to remind himself that this was not real. That the Thranduil of his mind was exactly that, a made up figment with the appearance and voice of the elven king, rather than the actual knowledgeable ruler of Mirkwood; Greenwood, Thranduil insisted. Still, as time progressed, soon it no longer mattered that the elf was not real. The man would go to work for the day, would sit through meetings, write delegations, appear among the people, and do personal business, and then at night he would go and speak with the elf who was becoming something a little more than his best friend.
It was an unmentioned tradition that Bard would arrive at the island first, with Thranduil arriving relatively soon afterwards. The first time after he started visiting regularly that Thranduil hadn’t shown up at all Bard had found himself anxious, convinced that he had lost his friend. Every time his worries were proven unfounded, and his friend would reappear, whether it was the night after, or the one even after that. Thranduil wouldn’t mention anything of his disappearance, but would sit Bard down next to him and the two would rest in silence, enjoying the comfort of closeness and the light touch of their arms pressed together. Unwilling to jeopardize anything and accidently send Thranduil away for good, Bard never made allusion to it either, or even thought of anything strange in his appearances beyond the times he saw his friend again.
Never thought of it, that was, until the first time he was there before Bard.
It was an otherwise normal night, only set apart because Bard had finished all he wished to do on the prairie the night before and was going to start on the dead forest the next. He would’ve been finished earlier, but Thranduil had convinced him to dig something of a trench between the prairie and the forest, with empty dirt for a meter to either side of it. When Bard figured out how to get water into the dream—though for some reason he was sure Thranduil knew how—the trench would fill and could be used to divert the flow of liquid from one side of the island to the other. He wasn’t exactly sure how it’d work, Thranduil never explained beyond a few pointed comments, but he trusted his friend enough to do it.
Bard hadn’t been thinking too heavily about the dream before he’d gone to sleep, far more focused on the waking world. It was two days before the one year anniversary of Smaug’s death, and almost everyone would be coming to meet for a celebration and political meeting in Dale. The elves from Mirkwood, dwarves from Erebor, and men from Dale, all meeting in the far more neutral and geographically central Dale to discuss the trade and diplomatic agreements between the three kingdoms under the guise of a celebration for the people. Well, it wasn’t completely a guise, but still.
That very morning a late shipment of supplies for the celebration had come in from a nearby newly set-up trading outpost, and while Bard still didn’t actually understand what had gone wrong, he’d needed to be there to calm down the yelling and fussing merchants and buyers. Afterwards he’d been swept up by his tailor—his tailor, a personal tailor, what was his life—to try on new ceremonial clothes. Then Tilda, currently apprenticing under said tailor, had wanted his attention on her newest set of clothing designs. Always happy to spend time with any of his children, Bard had quickly lost the rest of the day there, eventually sending them both to bed when he’d glanced out the window and noticed how dark it had become.
So while Bard was later than usual, he’d been so before and still Thranduil had arrived even later. With this past precedence, he had not been expecting to see the elf already present. Not that he’d been expecting much of anything, thinking perhaps to take the night off to rest, exchange a couple stories with Thranduil and muse about the coming event.
Instead, opening his eyes to the dreamscape, he was faced with Thranduil’s back, his friend motionless as he stared out at the dead forest, and the orange glow that lit it from within.
Chapter 10: A Third Interlude
Since the inhabitant had begun working on the prairie, the dreamer had known that his gaze would turn next to the forest. Had seen it move there multiple times already and guided it gently away. Each time he’d put it off though, he’d known it was only a matter of time before it strayed and stayed there, as where else could it go? The basin had been redone, the rocky shores had been cleared and cleaned, and soon, now, the prairie too was tilled and ready for life. All that was left was the dead forest that meant so much to the dreamer. Had meant so much.
It had taken nearly a year’s worth of mentions and occasional explanations by the inhabitant for the dreamer to truly understand, but he thought he’d nearly accepted the fact that there was little left of the forest he’d once loved so dearly.
He’d gone through the process with each of the other places in his dreamscape, and while it had not been easy to watch the inhabitant change it to his liking, the dreamer had let him. It had been even harder to add his own commentary, but therapeutic too, to acknowledge the changes that needed to be made and then to be a part in shaping them. The dead forest was no different in needing to be let go. The memories would remain, the warmth and joy it had brought would stay, but it was time to grow something new. He’d had a lot of time to reflect on the transformation that would need to come, and through changes in Arda, letters penned to his children, halting, stilted, and helped by conversation with the inhabitant about his own kids, clearing out the root of the infestation in Greenwood, and other, littler things, he was as ready for it as he’d ever be.
Still, the forest was where the dreamer’s late wife had grown her plants, sinking their roots deep within the ground, curling vines around the dreamer’s trees, lichen that crept up the walls and hid away large stones. Was. The dead forest as it was now didn’t even have enough life left in the fragile plants to keep them together when the wind blew. Time had shown that he had better ways of remembering her. Better than just this, this dead remnant he’d spent far too long clinging to. This clutter of broken memories that was taking up space where new life should be growing.
It was still hard to start, even arriving in the dreamscape that night with the clear knowledge of what needed to be done. Yet with trees this size there was no way they’d be cleared out like the rest of the dreamscape’s plants. They would not rot to nurture what came next, even water would only bring mold. It would all need to be cleared, and that was where he hesitated, even when his mind had finally accepted the necessity of it all. Fire had, after all, damaged the dreamer so grievously in the past.
It had also brought new life though, he reminded himself. Fire came periodically into Greenwood, ate sickly sections of the trees and allowed new seedlings to sprout and begin their journeys towards the sun. Leaving behind blackened char that gave way for new growth, clean and green before it was exposed to the evil that had seeped into the dreamer’s kingdom. But there was no such evil here.
At last the dreamer bowed his head, beginning his last farewell to the forest. Perhaps her plants would grow again, from fallen seeds hidden under dirt and inside crevasses. If he didn’t allow life to come back, he’d never know. Everyone who visited an elf’s dreamscape left their mark, and so would she. Always with him, and not merely memories in dead trees.
With a heavy heart he moved forward, walking through the trees toward the center. The dreamer had planned to use this time to say goodbye, but as the plants crumbled from his delicate brushing, he realized he already had. Had spent years saying goodbye. There was nothing more to add.
Upon reaching the center he crouched down, pulling out the thin one-sided blade he always kept on his person, and one of the sea pebbles he’d picked up for this exact purpose. It was easy then to gather up a small pile of flammable refuse, molding it into a small pointed pile of quick and slow burning kindling. A few seconds with the blade and stone and the dreamer had sparked a fire, quickly standing up and retreating a step back. The wounds on his cheek throbbed in time with the flickering glow, and he tore his gaze away from the small merrily burning flame before it could hypnotize him. A last deep breath caught the beginnings of burning leaves, and then the dreamer was striding away, reaching out as he left to run fingers over rough, crumbling bark. Neither wind nor water would put the fire out now. Now it would burn.
The dreamer was almost running by the time he made it out of the forest, the fire chasing happily after him as if it wanted to play. Logically he knew it would not burn him here unless he allowed it to, but it provoked memories nonetheless, and his face and side where the dragon fire had burned him stung like they were days old instead of years. He slowed as he reached the edge of the forest, and when he stepped back out into the sunlight and turned to face the slowly burning trees he felt only relief.
Standing in front of the growing blaze, the dreamer watched it burn.
Chapter 11: A Joyful Night and a Mournful Morning
There wasn’t a considering thought in Bard’s mind as he automatically jumped forward to try and put out the fire, but a hand on his chest brought him to an abrupt halt.
“What are you doing?” Bard demanded in confusion, trying to come up with an idea of how to stop it. The whole forest was on fire at this point, was it even possible? “We have to put it out before it spreads!”
Out of the corner of his eye he caught his friend shaking his head, but it wasn’t until spoke that Bard stopped pushing. “I started it.”
Thranduil started it? The man stared at his companion, beyond confused. Thranduil hated fire. Had lost so much to it, even now wearing the scars from the dragon fire in full view, blind in one eye and permanently disabled. Why would he bring fire here?
As Thranduil so often did, he spoke before Bard could ask, answering his question before it was given voice. “In nature fire is as cleansing as it is destructive. Forest fires have been torching parts of Greenwood for years, sparking from lightning or drought and giving room for new growth.”
“But-” The man cut himself off with a glance towards the red and orange flickers, memories of Smaug rushing through his vision, screaming echoing in his ears. “How are you so calm about this?”
Thranduil sighed, one hand reaching up to hover beside the ruined part of his face before he let it drop. “Immortal recall has always been both a boon and a curse for my people, but time and effort have worked enough on my memories that I can see the differences before me. Dragon fire is an evil thing. Here no such darkness can touch.”
Bard started a little at the mention of dragons, but forced himself relax into Thranduil’s touch, staring out with him at the fire. Houses fell and burning flesh was carried forward on a gust of wind. He shivered. Thranduil may have gotten to a place where the fires of his memories were distinguishable, but for Bard the dragon had attacked only a year previous.
“In order for new growth to sprout, the fire must first burn away the old and dead plants.” Thranduil said softly in the tone of a lecture. “The seeds will fall and spread, and in the space left behind there will be room for the sun to reach the ground, nurturing and growing new seedlings.
His friend trailed off and Bard stood in silence, waiting for him to continue and taking well needed comfort in his closeness in the meantime. “In Greenwood we have not had a fire for many years. It is a, mixed thing, when one lives in and around so many trees. To see them burning down around you, and know that the fire will bring life, but also the possibility of death. Still, while I truly wish it were not so, I almost hope that the lack is a contributor to the darkness that has fallen over the Greenwood. Otherwise the blame would be all my own.”
“Who’d blame you?” Bard blurted out, so taken aback that the fire fled from his mind for the moment as he stared at Thranduil. Sure, he’d heard rumors from people who knew nothing of the king, but he’d never put stock into them, let alone though Thranduil would.
“It isn’t a matter of who. Voiced or not, it was still my doing, or rather my negligence.” Thranduil admitted, closing his eyes and tilting his head back. “I faded Bard. Perhaps not completely, but still enough that my inattention let darkness creep into the Greenwood far quicker than it would have had we attempted to stop it.”
Bard didn’t know nearly enough about what had happened to Greenwood to say whether or not it could’ve been stopped, but, “Faded?”
The other nodded, finally turning to face him, an almost guilty expression painting his face at the admission, speaking as if each word was dragged from him. “You once spoke of elves dying when their love does.” A pause. “While it isn’t completely true, we do fade when we’ve lost all purpose in the world, a state that ends either in death or a journey to the Undying Lands. When my wife died, I thought my time had come and I fell into a depression that can lead to fading. By the time I realized that I was still needed in this world, for my children and kingdom, I had already lost so much. Too much, I thought, to return from.
“I mourned for many years, lost in the grief that plagued me day and night. By the time I opened my eyes again, Greenwood had become Mirkwood, my people’d deteriorated to a shell of what they’d been, and most of my children were gone.” His friend shut his eyes tightly, clenching his jaw. “I do not blame them for leaving, I would not have wished them to stay. I was not the only one who lost someone, and by the time I’d remembered that, it was too late. You know I’ve sent letters, but I still do not know now what they think of me, nor do I know if I wish to find out. I’ve written it, but I don’t know if they understand how much I love them.”
While this was not the first Bard’d heard of Thranduil’s worries over his children, it was the first he’d heard of fading. Focusing on that, he reached out, angling Thranduil’s face towards him so the other would have to meet his eyes.
“Thranduil, this is not your fault. You didn’t bring the darkness. You aren’t the reason Greenwood is sick. Yes, maybe you could’ve stopped things from happening so quickly, but it could’ve gone a lot worse too. Far more elves might’ve died if you’d gone after it. You can’t know either way, and beating yourself up over it isn’t going to change things. All you can do is move on with what you know.” Bard didn’t know enough about what was happening to Greenwood to speak beyond that. Whenever the topic came up it was skirted around and out of respect for his friend Bard had let it go by the wayside. About his children he knew more. “And you’ve spoken enough of your children for me to know you love them. Yes, things have been strained between you, but it isn’t the end. You’re the one always telling me about how long you elves live. You still have time enough to tell them. Writing letters is a start, speaking to them, inviting them back here. You will see them again, and you can fix this. If it helps, I’ll be right beside you, though I know you can do this even on your own.”
Though the look on his friend’s face told Bard Thranduil didn’t fully believe him, he nodded, pulling away from Bard’s grasp and looking back out at the forest again.
“It does help.” He murmured, the gentle admission making Bard feel warm at the amount of trust placed in him.
“This was my wife’s forest.” Thranduil said suddenly, making Bard blink at the change of subject. He’d almost forgotten the burning trees. “Out of all the dreamscape she loved it the most. The trees are mine, but the vines, the sounds, they were hers. All the mosses and many of the flowers. They grew because of her, though I don’t know when they died. With her, or with my negligence afterward. Either way, they’re my memories of her. Were, I suppose, now.
“I’ve thought about it a lot, actually,” The elf continued, his words conversational, his body language displaying something close to tears in anyone else. “How much I had been clinging to something already gone. This forest, this place has been dead for so many years, and I’ve been grasping at long ago memories of when it had life. So used to my isolation that I’ve become complacent in it.” He took a deep breath, stance straightening. “But no more. She would not want this. I do not want this”
That had been something Bard had needed to tell himself many times after his own wife’s death. That she wouldn’t want him to wallow in grief, but to continue living life to its fullest. He’d have wanted the same for her, were their positions switched.
“I suspect I have long since accepted her death, just grown too comfortable in separation to do anything about it” Thranduil finished almost wistfully, throwing a mirthless small half smile Bard’s way.
Bard returned the smile. “Had my children not still been of the age to need me I probably would’ve done the same thing. It was hard moving on, but necessary. I lived for my kids then, and eventually started to live for myself again. It took a long time, in mortal standards at least, but I managed.” He paused, staring out at the flames as he added, “Living for another person after her wasn’t something I could’ve imagine doing for a very long time.”
“Wasn’t?” Thranduil asked lightly.
Bard could feel the gaze on the side of his face, but refused to look, his cheeks feeling warm. This likely wasn’t the right time to say this, but Thranduil had asked. “Wasn’t.” He agreed.
“Bard…” Thranduil trailed off, and this time the man turned to look at him almost against his will.
There was something shining in the elf’s clear eye that he couldn’t read. It wasn’t an unfamiliar look, having appeared more frequently over the past month, but now Bard was beginning to think he knew what it was.
For a moment they stood there in silence, and it felt like they were on the edge of a precipice. Everything waiting, even the sounds of the fire crackling and its jumping orange glow fading into the background. Nothing was more important than returning the gaze of his best friend, half blind, scared and the most beautiful person he’d ever seen.
Then the moment was broken and Thranduil was kissing him, proving that the previous moment hadn’t been perfect, and that, oh, that this one was. Bard barely noticed a hand coming up to rest on the back of his neck, one of his own running over the ruined side of Thranduil’s face, reverently mapping out the rough skin.
His friend let out an almost pained noise at the touch, and it was only Thranduil’s previous reassurances of only feeling pressure that stopped Bard from immediately backing away. Instead he ran his fingers under the other’s sightless eye, then back and into his hair, gripping it as Thranduil deepened the kiss with a light sweep of his tongue over Bard’s lips.
Letting him in, Bard couldn’t stop a noise from leaving him at the taste. Like something sharp, something cold and enticing that had Bard pressing forward greedily as if he could search out it’s source by touch alone. All too soon he had to break it to breathe, grinning foolishly and resting his forehead against Thranduil’s.
Thranduil’s returning smile was lovely, and he let out a small huff of happiness, a sort of dazed realization growing on his face, happy and disbelieving. Unable to resist, and now seeing no reason to do so, Bard leaned in for another quick kiss, then another.
When something landed on his head he ignored it at first, until there was another, and another, and then a couple at the same time, and something trickling down the side of his face. Pulling back in confusion, Bard looked upwards and received a fat raindrop in his eye for his troubles.
“Wha-?” He gasped, staring at the sky in awe. Where before it had been relatively clear, now the sky was filled with plump clouds, heavy and dark with rain.
More rain fell around them, and within moments Bard was soaking wet, staring up into the sudden downpour. The background hissing grew in a wave and he turned to see steam pouring from the flaming trees. Laughter spilled out from beside him and Bard jerked back to Thranduil, almost gaping as he took in the other’s joy.
He had seen Thranduil laugh before, seen happiness on his face and heard it in his voice. But this, this was so much more. Thranduil was laughing openly, his face shining as he stared at Bard. So soon into the rainfall his hair was already soaking, weighed down and sticking to the sides of his face.
Seeing him now, Bard couldn’t believe he’d ever mistaken Thranduil for being cold and unfeeling. His elf felt everything, he just didn’t let it show. It was only here in this place that he felt safe enough to drop his mask. Sadness for the burning fire and now joy at the rain.
Then Bard was being pulled back in and they were kissing again, rain coming down in buckets around them and the muted fire hissing and spitting to the side. Despite the memories that had been filling Bard’s mind only a short time ago, it was a delightful contrast, the crisp taste of the elf as he explored his mouth and the smell of ash and wet smoke from the fire as it died. They kissed for something like ages, and this time it was Thranduil who pulled away, opened his mouth to speak, and someone knocked harshly on the door.
Bard jerked to wakefulness, mentally cursing the bad timing as the last wisps of the island slipped away. The feel of the Thranduil’s lips on his lingered, and it was in a sort of daze that Bard got up, calling out an acknowledgement to whichever of his children had woken him up. The sound of running feet faded off down the hall as the child left, onto the next task.
Hastily throwing on his clothes, Bard didn’t bother with picking out anything extravagant. The preparations for tomorrow’s arrival of the elves and dwarves would need to be finished today, but he wouldn’t be meeting with anyone who’d be offended at his lack of expensive formal dress. Thankfully most everything except for last minute arrangements and dealing with mishaps was already done. Considering how clear the memory of his and Thranduil’s meeting had been, Bard honestly didn’t know how focused he’d really be. He was far too impatient for the arrival of the elves.
Halfway into his overcoat Bard stopped, his joy falling to ash in his mouth. The elvenking that would arrive, the one who would use those stables, he would not be Bard’s friend. There would no scars on his face, no small smile playing on his lips reserved solely for Bard. This elf was as distant and cold as the stars in the dream, with a tendency to be harsh even when he helped. It was not Thranduil who would come. Not Bard’s Thranduil, anyway. Greenwood- Mirkwood’s King Thranduil.
One who had never looked twice at Bard in a romantic or even friendly light beyond a united front against the dwarves. One who bore no scars to highlight his beauty with their tale or survival. One who would not smile in greeting. All the amusing and personal stories Bard knew about the elf were just that, stories his own mind had made up. All the things that no one else but Thranduil knew were still his alone. While originally he’d been quite happy with a sounding and complaining board for all the aspects of his life, at some point he had come to truly appreciate the fact that there was someone who knew so much about him and yet didn’t judge him for it. Someone who didn’t exist.
Only outside of the dreams, Bard reminded himself. King Thranduil was different from Thranduil, but that didn’t mean that he’d never see Thranduil again. He’d been there on the island every night for almost a year, he wouldn’t just disappear now. While no, it probably wasn’t healthy to cling to that, Bard focused on it, rolling the thought over in his mind while he finished pulling on his shirt. He’d just have to treat this King Thranduil as a distant but allied ruler, and not slip up and mention anything that Thranduil had told him. It would be, hard, but it wasn’t the end of the world. Maybe it was insane being so attached to someone who only existed in his mind, but there wasn’t much he could do about that, and no one would know anyways. The lack of scars and Thranduil’s fond smile would have to be enough for him to differentiate between the two Thranduil’s. The icy king and the one he loved, as a friend, and now perhaps more.
“Are you okay da?”
Bard looked up to find Sigrid standing in the doorway, a curious look on her face. “You look sad”
Inwardly Bard winced. If his daughter could tell that from mere moments of idle observation, how was he supposed to hold up around everyone else? Still, he hadn’t been expecting anyone to be looking. When tomorrow came, he’d just have to have perfected a mask of normality.
Really, he’d known King Thranduil was coming for weeks. This remembrance that Thranduil wasn’t real shouldn’t rock Bard so. He’d already known that.
“I’m fine Sigrid.” He answered, testing out a smile. “I just remembered something that’ll hopefully be fixed before it becomes a problem.”
She nodded, but after a moment inquired shrewdly, “Given what’s happening tomorrow, is this about the elvenking?”
Had he been holding anything it would’ve promptly met the floor. “What? Why would there be something wrong with him? There’s a lot going on tomorrow.”
Was he really that transparent? But then how would she know who his thoughts were about? He didn’t think he’d spoken of Thranduil much outside of the dreams. Sure, he’d probably mentioned him in the same way he’d mentioned the dwarven rulers, but how had she made that connection so fast?
“Oh, no reason.” Sigrid said with a shrug, then added, “You should get downstairs before Bain and Tilda eat everything. I thought I’d made enough for us all, but you know how the two of them can be.”
With that she flashed him a smile and left, allowing him his rather pathetic deflection. While he really didn’t want to talk, and was thankful she hadn’t forced it, he knew he must look very upset for her to grant him that concession. Not to mention he’d still no idea how she’d figured it out.
Heading downstairs after her, he slid into a free chair at the table to a chorus of greetings from his children. Asking how they’d slept and how everyone was doing, he thought he would get away without any mention of the elves until Tilda spoke up.
“Aren’t you excited to see Thranduil again da?”
Choking on the mouthful of water he had just taken, Bard did a double take. “Why would I be?”
“Well you always look so happy after receiving a letter from Mirkwood.” She looked confused, and Bard decided he really needed to work on his deflections. He’d thought he’d been getting better at them recently, but evidently he’d been wrong, considering how bad he’d been doing that morning.
Frowning at the statement, Bard considered it, unaware he had been so transparent about his feelings. His feelings for someone who wasn’t real, he forcibly reminded himself.
“We wouldn’t mind, you know.” Sigrid added, pushing around the rice on her plate. “I like King Thranduil. He’s really interesting, and respectful, and he likes baking pie.”
Apparently there hadn’t been enough surprises yet today, and it was still only the morning. “He talks to you? Enough that you know he likes pie?”
“Oh yes, he stops by the kitchens sometimes. When he’s here I mean. And after the Battle of The Five Armies he was there to see how the supplies were being handled. We baked a pie together” She smiled happily, tilting her head meaningfully. “He’s very nice.”
Bain, who’d been silent up until now, actually agreed with a nod, adding, “Sometimes when we get supplies from Mirkwood he comes. Unlike most of the people we deal with he’s fair, never trying to shortchange us. Not like the Master at all. And in his letters he’s really helpful, especially because not many of us actually know what we’re doing.” He paused, squinting at his plate, “He’s also stopped by to talk about how we’re doing, and about you before. In a weirdly formal way.”
Bard stared at the table. He’d had no idea King Thranduil had so much interaction with his children. Then again, the cynical part of his mind piped up, perhaps King Thranduil was only doing so because they were in places of influence. Instantly he berated himself for the thought, shoving it out of his mind. King Thranduil may not be Bard’s Thranduil, but the elvenking still wouldn’t use children like that.
He was saved from coming up with a response when a knock on the front door sounded, and he grasped the distraction with both hands, using it as an excuse to bid his children good day and clear his plate, leaving to the sounds of them chattering about the coming celebration. Determined to put the whole thing out of mind.
Though he’d thought the day would drag on—and while for bits it did—for the most part it flew by with all the last minute preparations needing to be done. They’d had a few celebrations over the year, mostly as reminders that they’d survived and were rebuilding, but this would be a larger one given the amount of things being celebrated. The one year anniversary of the Battle of The Five Armies, of beginning of Dale’s rebuilding, of getting out from under the Master’s thumb, of the death of Smaug. There were many more tragic things to remember, but most people preferred to celebrate. There had been enough mourning.
Not to mention the new work needed to be done on the dwarves accommodations, as they had been unaware Dis, the sister of Thorin, would be coming as well and as such changes had to be made. Bard was slightly confused as to why it hadn’t been assumed she would be coming in the first place, but what was done was done, and they needed to move on.
With their rivalry, the dwarves and the elves had almost competed in the timing and splendor of their arrivals to Dale the last few times they’d had a meet up that invited both races, and Bard was expecting the same thing the next day. They must derive some sort of amusement from the power play, but Bard didn’t understand why. While it was a toss-up as to which would arrive first, he for some reason guessed it would be the dwarves, and therefore they would need a room prepared for Dis right away. Then again, perhaps it was just wishful thinking.
For the first part of the celebration and during the meetings it would be impossible for Bard to avoid King Thranduil, but during the rest he could at least try and spend time elsewhere. Not enough to tempt offending the other, which would be hard considering how much time the two of them usually spent together at these celebrations, but it would be good practice for potential future occasions. Better he see the other as little as possible to avoid potential slip ups. It was almost too bad it was the elvenking he’d be mixing his Thranduil up with. The elvenking was good at condescendingly imparting extremely helpful knowledge. King Thranduil was harsh, but also helpful and kind, just rather bad at it.
Bard shook his head, no, that was him mixing up King Thranduil with Thranduil. Something he could not do in the quickly coming week.
Really, it wouldn’t be all that bad. King Thranduil didn’t actually know that Bard had been dreaming about him every night or so for the past year and a half, so if the man acted off, that wouldn’t be his first conclusion. It would be weird if he acted too familiar, but the elvenking had always allowed a certain lack of decorum with Bard that he’d seen him verbally eviscerate others for. So hopefully if he acted a little too familiar, Thranduil, King Thranduil, would accept it as a mark of an inexperienced king.
The elvenking would be there for a week, he’d leave, and Bard would go back to his life.
Bard grimaced. His life of being in love with a figment of his imagination. He’d been avoiding thinking it thus far, but really, how had it come to this? He certainly hadn’t expected anything of the like to happen whenever he’d entertained the thought of being with someone else. Not to say it was something he’d seriously entertained. He admired other people, of course, but the thought of actually being with them? That appeared solely reserved for Thranduil. Thranduil, who didn’t exist.
Chapter 12: A Spoken Promise
As they had been all day, more thoughts about Thranduil crept up as Bard was getting ready for sleep that evening, this time centred solely on the elf of his dreams. How was he supposed to act around him? He’d avoided thinking of it all day, but so close to sleep he found the thought could no longer be ignored. As easy as it was to brush off carrying on a relationship with someone who wasn’t real, Bard didn’t think he could actually do it. Should actually do it. As a friend was one thing, and while it might not be healthy to have one’s best friend be nonexistent, it was worse to have the same be true of a romantic partner. Had not the Master’s relationship with money, or Thorin’s desire with the Arkenstone shown just how twisting such a one-sided love could be? Besides, the island didn’t need him anymore. Thranduil seemed to know what he was doing with the forest, everywhere else was fixed, and the skies had opened to give up water.
On the other hand, had he not been happier this past year? Oh, a great deal of things had changed, but wasn’t the half of his life that he spent with Thranduil a large reason for that? Having someone who listened, who empathized and guided. It was a wonderful feeling, and only more so because it was flawed, uncertain, beautiful, firm-standing, knowing, Thranduil. Maybe the romance was taking it a bit far, and although he definitely felt like they’d been heading there, they could always go back to just being friends. There was no real reason to give that up when it brought about so much good in his life. His children had said he seemed happier, so he obviously acting negatively to those around him like the Master or Thorin had done. Wasn’t it better to stay like that?
Sleep came before he made a decision.
Again Thranduil was already there when Bard entered the dreamscape, joy written across the elf’s scared face as he strode toward the man.
“We’re traveling so I cannot stay for long, but I wished to see you.” The elf murmured before greeting him with a kiss. When Bard didn’t respond, the elf pulled back, eyebrows drawn together in confusion. “Bard? Is there something wrong?”
Bard hesitated, but slowly nodded. He still wasn’t fully decided on what to do, but on this at least he was certain. No matter what lies he used to try and convince himself.
“We can’t do this.” He winced at the bluntness of the words, refusing to look at Thranduil for fear of what he’d see. “This, the romantic relationship. It’s one thing having my best friend be a fabrication, another thing to fall in lov- to be involved with someone who doesn’t exist. I can’t do that.”
When silence met his declaration, Bard chanced a glance up at Thranduil to find the elf looking stricken, beginning to reply and then pausing, his eyes going distant as if hearing something far away. The distance persisted for a few moments before passing, and the elf continued as if nothing had happened.
“Bard, this,” He momentarily closed his eyes, taking a deep breath before admitting, “This is real. This has always been real, since the very first time you appeared here, in my dreamscape. I refrained from telling you, as I didn’t- Well, we don’t have the time to discuss that. My point is that this is real, what I feel for you, and you for me.”
It was so unbelievable that hope didn’t even begin to rise at the attestation, and Bard was already shaking his head. “No it’s not. And trying to convince me that it is won’t do any good. Or trying to convince myself, whatever this is.” When it looked like Thranduil was still prepared to argue, he added, “Look, let’s just go back to being friends and forget about all of this. I know you’re not real, but I want you as my friend anyways.”
That distant look crossed Thranduil’s face again, and when he came back, the elf looked frustrated. “No.” He stated, shaking his head, “We aren’t leaving this, but I don’t have enough time to convince you.”
With that he twisted his hand, a knife appearing as if from nothing. Bard’s eyes narrowed in bewilderment, then widened as Thranduil turned the knife back on himself. Automatically reaching for the weapon with a protest on his lips, Bard’s fingers just brushed the handle as Thranduil took a step back and sliced a thin line down the base of his thumb. Bard’s interference had curved the line at one edge, dragging the knife upward at it moved away from his palm.
“Thranduil, what are you doing?” He cried, reaching out again and this time succeeding in wrenching the knife from his friend’s grip, flinging it away and taking the wounded hand in both of his own. “This is not what you do to convince me you’re real.”
Ignoring Bard’s attempts at stopping the bleeding, Thranduil dismissed his concern. “It’s barely a scratch, you needn’t worry. It’s only to prove my point. Bard, listen to me!” A hand grabbed Bard’s chin, forcing to meet Thranduil’s eyes. “Tomorrow I’ll arrive in Dale, and this mark will still mar my hand. Everything that happens here in the dreamscape happens in real life. I promise this is-”
And then Thranduil was gone, as if he’d never been there in the first place.
Waking up the next morning was horrible, Bard’s mouth dry as dead grass and a headache softly pounding at his temples. It was a few moments before he remembered the happenings of the night before, and he groaned as they came back. After Thranduil had disappeared, Bard had stood in place for the rest of the night, waiting for something to make sense. When nothing had, he’d blankly took in his immediate surroundings, only then noticing the light mist of rain still falling from the sky. Water had returned to the island, but he was more confused than ever. Why had his mind decided on that as a method of trying to convince itself of a false reality?
Either way it was folly. False hope where there was none.
It was in a perpetual sort of daze that Bard went about his day, getting up and putting himself together, eating breakfast and meeting with the dwarves when they arrived first thing in the morning. It must’ve been obvious to everyone he spent any time with that his behavior was off, but he couldn’t find it in himself to care. He’d expended so much effort attempting to stamp out that fragile piece of hope that he hadn’t noticed it taking root.
It was that well buried hope that had him later jumping to his feet upon the news of the elves impending arrival. A cruel, cruel thing, near blinding him to every fact stating that dreams were only dreams, and had no power over reality.
Bard didn’t hear an advisor asking him if he was well, already striding to the door in as everything else turned to haze, fear and hope clawing at each other inside his stomach. He barely noticed a few of the dwarves, King Thorin included following him at a distance out of the meeting hall, as if they were curious about his out of character mannerisms, yet not curious enough to risk it looking like they were greeting the elves. Bard’s eyes were only for the tall figure riding in on an elk, at the head of the procession of elves coming towards him.
Even knowing better than to think reality could be twisted so, he couldn’t stop himself from walking halfway out to meet Thranduil, coming to a stop only when meeting cold, blank eyes. The elvenking was as beautiful as always, a picture of perfection even with the emotionless mask and his scars hidden. Under a glamor in deference to the supposed vanity of the elves.
King Thranduil didn’t look at Bard as he dismounted, but that damning hope commented on how odd it was that the king wasn’t waiting until the ceremonial gate to dismount. Nor was he staring down at Bard from atop his mighty stead while wondering what was wrong with the lowly man.
And when King Thranduil’s eyes met Bard’s, that little hope grew tenfold. This was no stranger he faced. He knew these eyes, despite both of them being clear, he knew that subtle tilt to the elf’s eyebrow, the nervous jump in his finger that betrayed nervousness. He knew this elf, he did, oh please let this be his elf. Please, someone, anyone, let this be the Thranduil he knew.
The king drew closer until he was standing directly in front of Bard, and in a move that was surely at a normal speed but seemed to take years, lifted his hand to Bard as if in offering. For a moment more Bard could do nothing but stare into the elvenking’s expectant and slightly uncertain eyes, and then he glanced down to what the other was offering.
There, on Thranduil’s palm at the base of his thumb, was a barely healed over cut, one edge slightly upturned like a backwards checkmark.
It was like being doused in a bucket of cold water on a boiling day, seeing the sun for the first time in weeks during a harsh winter, eating food after a long day of abstinence. Like coming home. Time itself seemed to stand still as Bard’s mind slowly comprehended the reality of hope fulfilled.
Then, all in a rush, everything flooded back in and Bard surged forward, grabbing the elf king’s face in his hands and kissing him passionately, pouring all his pain and despair and that damnable hope that had plagued him for the past two days into the kiss. Thranduil, Thranduil, not King Thranduil at all, kissed back just as fiercely, letting out a soft sigh of happiness as he pressed back against Bard.
Bard had thought that that one taste of Thranduil had been enough to stay with him, but this kiss proved him wrong, the fresh flavor of the elvenking something he was sure he was already addicted to. Too soon he had to pull back to breathe, grinning foolishly up at the elf. With or without the scars and the island and the solitude, this was his Thranduil, and this was real.
“I promised” Thranduil murmured, and Bard let out a content chuckle.
“You did.” He agreed, brushing a wayward lock of Thranduil’s hair behind his ear. “Given that you’ve not led me astray yet, I suppose I should’ve believed you.”
Thranduil nodded seriously. “You should.” Tilting his head a little, Thranduil’s eyes darted away for a moment before coming back to meet Bard’s. “And given that I have been attempting to advise you since you’ve become king, I feel obligated to inform you that this sort of display is not befitting of royalty, and should be kept to a minimum.”
“A minimum?” Bard laughed, still too happy to really consider anything further than the two of them. “But not discarded completely?”
“Of course not.” Thranduil agreed with mock distain. “A good king never burns bridges where he can help it, and given that I would be the one involved in such a display with you, I’d hate to deprive myself.”
Again Bard laughed, content in a way he’d not been for far too long. It didn’t matter that they were in the full sight of so many people, or that before this Bard had been completely unaware that Thranduil had been real all this time, or that he had no idea how a relationship between two kings would work. All that mattered was the look on Thranduil’s face as he looked at Bard, gaze flicking over the man’s features like his friend was cataloging him into his memory forever. The feel of his hair beneath Bard’s hands, the taste of him in his mouth, the joy in his presence.
At the moment, nothing else mattered but this.
The decision to kiss Thranduil had been easy. The aftermath was evidently going to be a little harder. Not to say Bard regretted anything, as he really, really didn’t, it was just that when one kissed the very male ice cold elvenking of Mirkwood in full view of many dwarven, elvish, and mannish dignitaries, one should be aware of the repercussions of such an action. While there wasn’t anything anyone could really do about it, there were certainly going to be a lot of comments. And while Bard was quite tempted to ignore everything and drag Thranduil off to some place where they would not be bothered, being a king got in the way. Kind of. For a little bit.
First thing, he thought, as he pulled back from Thranduil, ignoring King Thorin’s loud exclamation of disgusted surprise, he would need to talk to his kids. They’d already mentioned the day before that they liked Thranduil, but there was a difference between children being sneaky about someone they liked and thought their parent should like as well, and their parent actually being in a relationship.
They were easy to find, Tilda and Sigrid in their expensive dresses and Bain in royal garb, standing alone and unsurprised amongst the gaping men and dwarves.
Bain and Sigrid were, naturally, grinning their faces off, while young Tilda actually let out a whoop of joy, before calling out across the mostly silent courtyard, “Does this mean I get to meet the elk now?”
Seriously though, why weren’t they more surprised? He and Thranduil had been meeting in dreams, and Bard hadn’t even known King Thranduil was the same as his Thranduil.
An exasperated glance at Thranduil turned quickly to suspicion at the elvenking’s adverted eyes. “What did you do?” He prodded, pitching his tone low for the elvenking’s ears only.
Thranduil shrugged gracefully, “I may have been keeping in contact with your children for the past year and a half?” The end of the sentence rose in tone, turning it into something of a question that was only furthered by the abashed set of his shoulders
Shaking his head, Bard let out a slightly incredulous, though no less amused laugh. “So did everyone but me know that the dreams were real?”
“No,” Thranduil assured him, “Your children know nothing of my dreamscape. I believe they thought us to be writing letters and meeting in secret. All very clandestine, I assure you.” Then, reading Bard’s mind as usual, he added, “While I do not mind if they are to find out about the dreamscape, I would ask that the knowledge goes no further, as it is not something my kind so freely shares.”
Fair enough. While he wouldn’t have thought something as unusual as dreams would be a race secret, he could see why. Even knowing what little he did about the island—and he would be correcting that oversight—it wasn’t something he thought the elves would want getting out.
The incoherent gasping of the dwarven king finally turned into words and Bard’s attention was drawn back to the spectators as he asked loudly, “Is that a smile? Is the elf dying?”
Despite knowing of the rivalry, and being present while worse insults were offered from both sides, Bard was rather offended, stepping back and then standing a little awkwardly, knowing that if he got involved it would only make things worse. Perhaps especially so now.
As usual, Thranduil looked supremely unimpressed by the insult, flashing a cool smile as he prompted Bard, “As we have just arrived, the rules of hospitality demands…”
Ah, yes. The elves and their mounts were likely tired at this point, having just finished the journey from Mirkwood to Dale. Even still he might’ve felt slighted by the abrupt change, except for the warmth in his elf’s eyes, melting all the chill his tone carried. Tilting his head in agreement, Bard stepped back smiling.
“Of course. My lord Thranduil,” He declared at a more audible volume. “If you would follow me, I can show you and your people where you may stay while in Dale.” Turning then to King Thorin his smile turned tight. “If you would excuse me, I must see to our guests.”
With that they escaped the spotlight, and the walk to the area of Dale permanently set up for the elves was spent in silence between the two of them. Instead, Bard listened in on a few of the conversations going on behind them as his children joined the procession and immediately fell into step with elves he didn’t know. Some he eventually recognized upon hearing their names, while others Thranduil would dip down and lowly identify. Bard wasn’t truly worried for his kids among the elves, rather curious as to how much communication he must’ve missed for them to be so obviously comfortable.
When they reached the buildings, most of the elves broke off towards the stables to take care of their mounts, the rest moving on to drop off supplies and settle into temporary accommodations.
Uncertain of whether or not the elvenking already had plans, but wishing enough to spend more time with him that he thought he’d offer, Bard put a hand on Thranduil’s arm, “There’s a guest room in my home that you may stay in, though I’d understand if you’d prefer to spend your time with your people. There are rooms for you here too.”
Thranduil smiled, a teasing lit to his voice as he commented, “I hope that isn’t an offer made to every king to visit your kingdom.”
“Only the ones I’m especially fond of.” Bard replied with a grin
Twisting his arm delicately out of Bard’s grasp, for a moment the man was afraid he’d done something wrong. He relaxed again when instead of pulling away completely, Thranduil brushed his fingers against Bard’s, momentarily twining them together as the prompted, “Shall we then?”
They had barely made it to Bard’s home before Tilda was jumping up and down in excitement again, badgering Thranduil about his elk with all sorts of questions. How old was it, was it a boy or a girl, was it was the same elk he had had at the Battle of The Five Armies.
Though Bard was once again worried that the elvenking would be annoyed, Thranduil once again proved him wrong, answering the questions easily, if perhaps a little awkwardly. Very old, old enough that he had seen Dale before its burning. A male, and was in fact the brother of the one who’d fallen in The Battle of The Five Armies, their whole family lived in Greenwood, and had a close relationship with the elves of the royal family. He didn’t mind if she wanted to ride the elk, but she’d have to ask him first, and couldn’t ride alone.
With that she calmed down slightly, and Bard was able to usher her into the sitting room where her siblings waited, amused as ever at their sibling’s antics. Then, giving up all of the pretence he’d so unsuccessfully kept up the day before, he asked how long they’d known about him and Thranduil.
“Really da, you didn’t think you being subtle?” Bain asked, one eyebrow arched high in amusement.
“Hey, you didn’t even notice until I pointed it out to you.” Sigrid outed the boy, causing Bain to flush and shoot his sister a mild glare.
“Don’t tease your brother.” Bard chided automatically, then asked, “And how did you know?”
“Whenever King Thranduil was mentioned you became happy.” She answered with all the bluntness of a child who knew they had a piece of wonderfully embarrassing knowledge. Coincidently, Bard found the sitting room floor to be very interesting, and could barely tear his eyes away. “And he always asked after you in letters or when we saw each other while he was in Dale. And when he was in Dale you’d be excited in the days leading up to it, and mopey after he’d left.”
This was his punishment. He wasn’t sure what it was for, but he knew he was being punished, and Thranduil was never going to let him forget it. He’d not even noticed himself doing it, but it would be held over his head for years to come.
In an attempt to avoid any more blackmail material, Bard quickly moved on to the next, more important question. “And are you guys actually okay with this?”
His children exchanged unreadable looks, and it was Sigrid who answered, serious and every bit a young adult. “I haven’t seen you so happy since mom was alive”
And that more than anything convinced Bard, both that his children were okay with this and that he would be too. Unable to verbally articulate the depths of his gratitude, Bard stood, moving closer to his children only to drop to his knees and gather them all up in a hug. Punishing him for unknown reasons or not, they truly were the best kids a father could ask for.
“Now!” Sigrid announced, squirming out of Bard’s hold and turning to Thranduil. “Do you remember how to make that pie I showed you?”
The elvenking nodded gravely, pronouncing, “Never forget to bake the crust first, or it will come out tasting like dough.”
Sigrid nodded firmly in approval. “And because you guys are staying for a week, you’ll have lots of time to show me an elven recipe.”
“Indeed.” Thranduil inclined his head. “Let me know when you have time, and we will make it happen.”
“Good.” She nodded again, approaching Thranduil until she stood directly in front of him. For a moment she stood there and considered him, then smiled brilliantly and hugged the elvenking tightly, stepping back before he could do much more than blink in surprise.
All heads turned to Bain next and he started, glancing around at them and then back up at Thranduil. “I’m good with this. Just, don’t hurt da. Or get annoyed with him ‘cause he’s really blunt and doesn’t understand tact.”
“I will endeavor to not take offence.” Thranduil agreed before Bard could protest that he could be tactful, thank you very much, adding, “And I will do my upmost to ensure no harm comes to your father that I have caused.”
Bain nodded, then turned to Sigrid with a helpless shrug. Taking pity on the men in her life, Sigrid patted her siblings on the back and steered them out of the room. “Now, da and ada have to have a long talk, so we’re going to go and see how the market’s being set up. Maybe that vendor with the oil paints will be there again and we can…”
“Ada?” Thranduil mouthed, blinking in confusion as he stared after Bard’s retreating kids
Bard couldn’t have stopped himself from laughing at Thranduil’s stunned look if he’d wanted to. Served the elvenking right for calling him tactless anyway. So Bard liked to get to the heart of the matter. Didn’t mean he couldn’t use tact, just that he didn’t. It was pretty funny seeing Thranduil so confused, too.
“You’ve been adopted.” Bard informed his friend, still chuckling.
Shaking off his bewilderment, Thranduil shot Bard a slightly resigned smile, then sat back down on his chair, sprawling on it languidly. How the elvenking managed to look just as majestic sitting on a rock as he did in a formal sitting room setting, Bard would likely never know.
The thought reminded Bard of what had brought all of this about, and he slowly sat opposite his friend, his mirthful grin fading away.
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
Thranduil blinked lazily, then he stiffened and his gaze sharpened in understanding. Rules of hospitality demanded that Bard offer him a place to clean off and refreshments, but he had a feeling they were both too wound up for that.
“At first,” Thranduil began, brushing away a non-existent spot of lint from his clothing, “Because I did not know why or how you were there. Other than myself, the last time someone else was in my dreamscape was when Legolas was young, for your kind a great many years ago. I wished to know your purpose there, and felt it would be easier to determine if you were not aware of the dream’s reality. When I discovered that you were rebuilding what I thought hopeless, I had no idea what to think. Water drying up from an elf’s dreamscape is a far along sign of fading. I was unaware it could be reversed.” Thranduil shrugged. “As I said before, dreamscapes are a secret my people keep quite close. It was pertinent that I found out whether our secret had become common knowledge.”
That made sense. Though it was a little surprising that Thranduil would admit it, he usually acted like he was informed on everything. “You were always amazed when things changed. That’s not normal then?”
The elven king shook his head with a wry smile. “You already know elves are immortal creatures. With what is natural we live out our lives here in Middle Earth, and then, when the longing comes, we travel across the sea to the Undying Lands. For a human our actions may seem slow, but we have all the time in the world. As it is in our dreamscapes. New life and important occurrences will bring change, but nothing as quick as what has occurred over the past year. The amount of healing you instigated, the change. The water alone I thought was an impossibility. The death of my dreams took years, and creation always takes so much more than destruction.”
“That’s understandable. In human dreams things are always changing, and things rarely make sense. Even so you can rarely tell you’re dreaming.” Bard compared, wondering how much Thranduil knew about human dreaming. “Things that seem perfectly normal in the dream make no sense in the waking world, and it’s rare to come back to the same place twice.”
“Really?” Thranduil tilted his head, leaning forward. “I was aware of some of that, but not that it happens in different places. How strange.”
Bard shrugged in answer, redirecting the subject back before they got caught up in dream comparisons. “I understand why you didn’t tell me at first then, but when we started to grow closer, when we became friends, why didn’t you say anything then?”
“Ah.” Sitting back again, Thranduil looked away. “Exactly that reason. We became friends. Originally I made the decision to speak openly with you because you could not judge me. You did not know I was real. Anything I said or did would have little impact in the waking world, because you wouldn’t add any weight to my words. Had I told you, had you known...” He trailed off, then flicked his fingers, continuing determinedly. “Everything I told you in confidence, I did so with the thought that no one would ever find out the truth of it. The idea of anyone knowing so much, even if it was you. I didn’t know if I was ready.
“When it started raining was when I fully realized how much had changed, and it became impossible to go on in the same way. I realized that I had come to care about you in a personal way I have not felt in a long time, and though I had not yet made the decision, it wasn’t fair to either of us for you to remain in the dark. When you approached me in fear and pain,” Shrugging again, Thranduil finally looked at Bard, leveling him with a solemn gaze that underscored the importance of all he was saying. “You had become very dear to me, and it was no longer a decision I could waver on. You had to know.”
The enormity of the risk Thranduil had taken was incredible. Sure, Bard too had used his friend as a soundboard, but he’d not had a single inkling that the island was a real meeting point. Thranduil had known from the beginning that he spoke with someone capable of spilling his secrets. Even had Bard never found out, there could’ve been a word dropped here or there, or a comment that was a little too personal to be false. The amount of ways that it could’ve gone wrong was astounding.
It had turned out well though, and for that Bard couldn’t be more thankful. Whatever fears Thranduil might’ve had had hopefully not been realized, though he’d have to ask him about that later. For now, with the important questions answered and ignoring the amount of people still unpacified over their relationship, they could take a little time to enjoy how many things had gone right.
“Come here.” Bard ordered, standing and waiting for Thranduil to do the same before he approached.
Laying a palm on either side of Thranduil’s face, Bard let himself smile up at his friend, contemplating all that he felt for the being before him. He knew he loved him as a friend, and while he was still a little hesitant to use the same word now, he was sure it wouldn’t be long.
Thranduil arched an eyebrow in question, and a spark of realization shot through Bard. Ah, that’s what was missing.
“Your scars. They’re under a glamor now?” He asked softly, drawing his thumb lightly over the skin he knew to be burned away.
Thranduil tried to duck self-consciously, but Bard held firm, waiting for an answer.
“You want to, see them?” The elvenking asked hesitantly, confusion and self-disgust tinting his words. They’d have to work on that.
“Listen.” Bard demanded, glaring at Thranduil and giving him a little shake to get him to listen. “You are an amazing, beautiful, intelligent, powerful elvenking and you know it. All of you is perfect and they’re a part of that, of you. I always want to see you as you are.” Bard finished with a murmur, placing a gentle kiss on the left side of the elf’s face, smooth skin turning rough under his lips as the illusion faded away.
Pulling back to admire his Thranduil, Bard smiled fondly. “There you are”
Thranduil tentatively grinned back, joy sparkling in his eye.
Yes, absolutely perfect in every way. Unable to resist, Bard dived in to kiss him again, not coming back up until they were both breathless.
Whatever came after this would come, one way or another. Bard would have many questions about dreamscapes, water, and the past. Thranduil would have his own about Bard’s life, about his children, and plans for the future. There would be talks late into the night and through the next week, for the rest of their lives. It would not all be perfect. Other people would have their own questions, concerns, and disgust. Thranduil and Bard would have fights, would grow sullen for days on end and then make up in a burst of passion or a late night teary arrival on a doorstep. The amount of change that would come from this one thing was enormous, but in that moment it really didn’t matter. Because whatever came after this, they would survive. They would live, and it would be absolutely brilliant.
Because they would do it together.
It's the rambling. I couldn't work around the rambling, and eventually gave up. Also, emotions? How...?
Also, this one only took me one month and two days to redo! *Sigh*
Seriously though, thank you for reading, I hope you enjoyed the story.