Surrounded by ancient trees, a small clearing lay drowsing in the summer heat, covered by a meadow grown tall as nobody came here to make hay, or put animals to pasture. The grass nearly vanished under masses of cornflowers, poppies, and marguerites, creating a brightly-coloured tapestry spreading out towards a small copse of birch trees at the far side. By the copse, a small brook now gurgled over flat rocks, now flowed smoothly through a sandy bed, widening to a shallow pool with a small beach at its side, before entering the dim shadows of the forest again. It was a peaceful spot, far away from the threatening darkness, its silence only interrupted by the hammering of a wood-pecker in the distance, and the soft croaking of frogs upriver.
Stepping out from the trees, Thranduil halted, listening for a moment, and then followed a narrow path towards the copse. The clearing was one of his favourite places, holding sweet memories of leisurely days spent with his first love, and, later, their son. Legolas had made his first steps on the sandy beach and learned to swim in the shallow pool, and had needed to be comforted after his first fall out of a tree. They had come alone and with friends, sometimes staying a night or two, to celebrate special occasions or just wanting to escape duties and responsibilities, to unwind and recharge. Now Laegwen was gone for longer than he cared to remember, Legolas was making new friends on the other side of the Hithaeglir, and he had not been here for at least a yén. But the place still held some of the old magic, and hopefully was a good choice for today’s trip.
When he reached the glittering brook, Thranduil felt a pang at the sight of the tallest birch split in two, the upper part broken off and now laying along the shore. But this was no recent damage, for new life already grew strongly from the splintered trunk, while the broken-off part had been chopped into shape and brought to the fire pit where it now provided comfortable seating. Somebody had also started to carve figures into the surface of the trunk. Thranduil smiled, happy that the place was still used by people. He set down his pack and the basket he was carrying, and stripped off his shoes. He might be the king of the Wood-elves for nearly three thousand years, and need to wear boots and armour most of the time; but the allure of walking bare-foot through grass or water would never lose its appeal.
“Fancy you splashing around like a boy,” a dry voice said behind him. “There goes my image of the magnificent Elven-king in his spiffy rags. Pity.”
Thranduil chuckled, turning quickly while making sure he was splashing water at the speaker, and giving a mock bow.
“Your servant, o mighty king of Men. I am sorry to disappoint, but since you are not impressed by my spiffy rags anyway, I opted for comfortable. You are not exactly advertising your station either, as I see,” he added with a nod towards the other’s well-worn hunting garb. “But come, take off your shoes and join me, it is very soothing on such a hot day. We can always splash at each other, should you so desire.”
Bard laughed and followed Thranduil’s suggestion, although he thankfully did refrain from splashing. There was still some level of dignity to maintain, after all: they were both leaders of their people, and while the increasing dealings between Men and Elves since the battle had brought them together and created a certain familiarity, it could not be called friendship. At least not yet, although lately, he had often wondered if it were not possible, and if his old belief that Elves and Men were too different to form this kind of bond was not wrong. Bard was a straightforward, honest, man, easy to deal with and not above admitting to a lack of knowledge about his new occupation. Actually, it had been Bard’s occasional asking for advice which had caused their relationship to grow beyond the official acquaintance of the rulers of neighbouring realms, and today’s outing was an attempt to find out where this might lead.
Bard left the water, stamping his feet. “You Elves don’t get cold feet, do you?” he asked, good-naturedly, putting back on his boots.
Thranduil raised one eyebrow and follow him, remaining bare-footed. “Not in the summer, no,” he said, “and not so quickly in the winter. But I did not invite you here to get a chill, so please do whatever you need to be comfortable.”
“What did you invite me here for? The place is a bit remote, I admit I nearly got lost twice before I found it.”
Thranduil chuckled. “But you did not,” he stated, not mentioning the Elven guard assigned to make sure the king of Dale would not be harmed nor lose his way. Bard might guess anyway, considering his previous experiences with Elves, and the fact that his personal guard had been asked to stay behind. “I wanted to show you that the forest still holds beautiful places, even if it is called Mirkwood now. Perhaps we might also share a bit of leisure away from our duties?”
“Sounds like a good plan,” Bard answered, smiling. “There’s a lot of beauty to be found in these woods.”
“Come, then, I have brought sustenance.”
Bard rubbed his hands. “Even better, all that cold water made me hungry!”
Laughing, Thranduil led the way to the fire pit. Bard went for firewood while he unpacked and set out a small feast of Elven and Men’s food on a cloth. There was enough to last them a few days, but maybe they could catch fresh trout later, and roast it over the fire. Thranduil knew already that Bard had a healthy appetite and enjoyed whatever he was offered, for it was only in recent times that abundant and varied foodstuffs had become available for both Elves and the Men of the former Lake-town. The unmourned Master had done his people much damage through his greed. Delicious cheeses, meats, and breads were now again available to everybody, and the pastries, cakes, and sweetmeats of Dale had become regular goods for trade with the Elves. There were also nut and fruit breads the Elves favoured, smoked fish and venison and the ham of a boar. Another small basket held some foodstuff Thranduil had collected on his way here.
“Oh my, look at that!” Bard had returned, setting down an armful of firewood, and looked at the food with delight. “Do you plan to fatten me up and sell me to another of these dragons?” He laughed and began to kindle a small fire, while Thranduil cracked some small, green-and-brown-dotted eggs in a pan and added a handful of fresh greens he tore into small pieces. When the fire was burning steadily, he set the pan on a rock close to it, turning it from time to time so the eggs would set evenly.
Bard plopped down onto the trunk, toeing off his boots again and extending his toes towards the flames. Thranduil joined him and handed him a wooden cup which he filled from the wineskin he had carried over his shoulder.
“Dorwinion, of course,” Thranduil said with a wink, filling his own cup. “Drinking it from wood needs some getting used to, but you will find it also enhances the flavour in a way.”
“Thank you.” Bard took a sip, savouring the taste. “You know, I was never one much for wine, until this whole king business started. I used to prefer ale, but I find this red stuff really growing on me.” He raised the cup in some kind of toast. “Coming here really was a good idea, oh Elven-king. I thank thee most reverently with - oh, whatever one is expected to say at this point.”
Both chuckled, as Bard’s difficulties with adapting to formal speech had become a bit of a permanent joke between them. Thranduil handed him a thin wooden board and a napkin, which caused another dry remark by the Man, and baskets with smoked meat and bread. While they ate, Bard regaled him with the shenanigans of some of Dale’s notorious citizens, and then their conversation turned towards their children. Raising their children without a mother was another shared link, and Bard had been the only person so far Thranduil had talked to about missing Legolas, and the pain of the strained relationship with his son. Thranduil relished the ease he felt in the other’s presence. He had always liked Bard, ever since they became well enough acquainted to get to know the man behind first the barrel haulier and then the new king of the lake people. Thranduil sat up straight, as he suddenly realised something.
“Anything wrong?” Bard looked up at him.
Thranduil shook his head as if to shoo something away. “No. No, everything is fine. I just caught onto something I have been too blind to see for the longest time.” He took a deep sip of his wine.
“Ah. And what might that be, if it’s allowed to ask?”
Thranduil turned to his companion with a serious gaze. “Actually, it is about you, so you have every right to know, no matter how embarrassing this might be for me.”
Bard cocked an eyebrow and leant back, folding his hands over one drawn-up knee. “You have me all agog. Don’t spare me anything.” His warm smile betrayed the dry mocking of his words; Thranduil knew him well enough by now to understand that this was just Bard’s way, no derision.
He set his cup down and poked at the fire with a stick. “I have always believed it impossible that Elves and Men could form friendships. Not the simple kind that develops easily, but true ones, the kind which takes years, sometimes decades, to form. Where you start to know the other better than yourself, where you have complete confidence, where you trust more even than you might trust your brother. I believed our species to be too different, set too far apart. We have such different values and experiences, and lead such different lives.”
He poked again at the fire. “I have seen such friendships, but I believed them to be not as true, not as profound as that between Elves. But just now, I realised how blind I have been. I have failed to understand that it is not a question of species, or values, or experiences, but just a question of character and integrity.”
He looked up, seeking out Bard’s calm gaze. “Already for some time, I would have welcomed such a friendship with you, for you are everything that I am looking for in a friend. But I was too arrogant to realise that I already had it, too blind to see that you have been my friend for the longest time. I am more embarrassed than I can say, and deeply ashamed.” He blushed.
Bard chuckled and reached out, gently touching Thranduil’s cheek. “Of course you’re my friend, and have been for a while. I wasn’t so sure if I were your friend, although it felt like it. So I’m glad, knowing that I haven’t been wrong all the time.” He got up and fetched the wine-skin, topping up their cups.
“I didn’t mind waiting for you to realise, you Elves are always rather uptight,” Bard teased. “And you’ve always been friendly enough to me, at least since the battle and since I’m no longer Bard-the-barrel-haulier.”
Thranduil blushed more deeply. “That was not because your occupation or your station!”
Bard laughed. “No, I know, just because you were an arrogant prick! How was it that dwarf called you? ‘Pointy-eared princess?’
“Hey!” Thranduil smacked him on the arm, his blush deepening, but joined in Bard’s laughter. “I really was, though, was I not? An arrogant prick, I mean, I firmly contest the princess!”
“Well, to a dwarf, everybody’s a princess who’s not covered in hair and wearing more metal than their body-weight, so I wouldn’t put too much on that statement. You looked quite magnificent, sitting on that stag with your beautiful armour and your flowing hair. It was quite an encouraging sight.”
“Thank you. Well, as long as Dáin does not refuse to deal with a pointy-eared princess, I do not mind what he calls me. We have all changed quite a bit since then.”
“Yes, we have, and I’m glad,” Bard said softly.
They sat for a while in companionable silence, sipping their wine and watching the fire. Then, Thranduil said: “Do you care for fresh trout? We can have it later, and I can show you how we catch it if you like. Bain said he wanted to learn, so perhaps you like to, too?”
“Yes, why not? It sounds very mysterious to me, and I always thought there was some Elven magic involved.”
“No, just experience and a lot of patience,” Thranduil explained with a chuckle while they put their cups away and went back to the brook. Thranduil walked along the shore until he had found a good spot, where the water was not too deep and ran merrily through a bed of pebbles and larger stones.
“Move silently, now,” he explained while stripping off his jerkin and tunic and laying it in the grass, put his circlet on top, and laid down on his belly as close to the water as possible. Bard followed his example, and then they both laid alongside, one arm in the water. “All you have to do is avoid loud sound and vibrations, not create any shadow in the water, and then just wait patiently.”
Thranduil demonstrated his words, pointing with his chin to a faint shadow which was indeed a trout, and then slowly moving his arm until he could place his hand below he fish. He saw Bard watching attentively, and then with the smallest of movements, lifted the fish out of the water. The trout did not even move for a long time, until it realised that it had been lifted out of its regular environment. Thranduil was about to throw it to the shore, when Bard suddenly pushed his arm down, allowing the trout to slip back into the water.
“Please, not today,” he asked, sitting up. “I can’t explain it, but it feels wrong to kill something for our meal, we have so much already.”
Thranduil sat up as well. “No problem, and no harm done. We really have enough food, and you have seen how it is done anyway.”
“Yes. It’s fascinating, I don’t know if I could do it, I doubt I could keep still for long enough.”
“Oh, you just need to try it often enough. Of course, this might take a couple of hundred years,” Thranduil chuckled and turned to reach for his clothes. Doing so, the sun now lay fully on his face, and he heard a sharp intake of breath and remembered he had taken off his circlet. Slowly, he turned back.
Bard looked at him with a kind of thoughtful curiosity. “I have never believed that you can really work magic,” he stated, extending his hand and gently touching Thranduil’s scarred cheek. “I always thought the tales of your fight with a dragon and the scars you bore were hugely exaggerated. You usually look quite smooth on that side.”
Thranduil swallowed. “They are not exaggerated. I was burned when I killed that beast.”
“I guess I’ve been lucky, then. Sounds like a tale I’d like to hear, too, perhaps on a cold winter night.” Bard reached for his shirt and pulled it back on. “I don’t suppose you can teach me this magic bit, though, can you? It’d be so helpful when I have to dress up. Just fit a hat or something, and bang! - instant improvement.” He laughed, seeking out Thranduil’s hand and giving him a squeeze.
Thranduil squeezed back and joined into the laughter, feeling a new lightness engulf him. Bard indeed was a friend, a true friend, one of the rarest kind.
~ finis ~