Bard's wrist itched every time he saw an Elf, the eternal reminder of the road not taken. He never said anything to them of course. He knew the real meaning of his Mark. He couldn't read the name on his wrist but he could read the sadness in his parents' eyes when they'd first seen his Mark -- when he'd come to them as an excited lad anxious to share the most important milestone in his life.
He had watched how the expectant light in their eyes had died when they'd seen his wrist.
Bard had not understood their explanation then; he had been too young. But nothing they said could be as powerful as their sober expressions in that moment.
"It's so pretty, Da," Sigrid said. Her little chubby finger traced the lines on her father's wrist.
Bard rested his head against hers but said nothing.
His wife was not so quiet. "It is indeed. It's Elvish, Love," Ragna explained from where she sat trying to get Bain to eat his mashed vegetables. Their baby boy was having none of it.
"Are you an Elf, Mum?" Sigrid asked, perking up at the idea.
Ragna laughed. "No, Love. I'm afraid I'm just plain old me."
For a long moment, Sigrid was quiet as she continued to contemplate her father's Mark. When she spoke again, her tentative tone indicated she knew how sensitive her question was. "Did . . . did Da's mate die like yours?"
Ragna's smile was gentle when she glanced over at their daughter. "No one knows. Your Da's not looked for his mate."
The scandalized look Sigrid leveled her father made Ragna laugh.
"Because your Da is a stubborn man who is more like his father than he cares to admit," she said, finally giving up with the mashed vegetables and moving to clean Bain's messy hands and face.
Bard frowned. "What is that supposed to mean?"
"It means you have the same grim outlook on life that he did." Finished cleaning Bain, Ragna gave him his favorite rattle before setting him on the floor to amuse himself.
"Because he was realistic?"
Ragna shook her head at her husband. "You could not take a more negative view of a Mark, Bard. You can't know for certain that your destiny blows ill. You can't know anything."
"You know the old tales. Do any of them end happy? No. If there truly is an Elf meant for me, what kindness is it to seek my Elf out? To spend my short few years together and then leave my Elf alone until the end of the world? Or cause my Elf to fade? It is the epitome of selfishness. Besides, most Elves have left these shores, and it's likely that I couldn't find my Soulmate anyway. Or perhaps my Elf died long before I was born, like your Hergils."
Pausing in the act of wiping down the table, Ragna put her hand on her hip to level her husband an unimpressed look. "Hergils died of plague when I was eight, which you know perfectly well."
"Well, he died before you knew him," Bard corrected himself.
Ragna rolled her eyes at him. "That's nowhere near the same thing. Elves don't get sick. Elves live forever. Even if your Elf had been born centuries ago, why couldn't he or she still be around?"
"Most Elves are gone-"
"And yet there's a whole nation just up the river. Honestly, Bard, you've determined it's all going to go ill no matter what. But what do you really know of Elves? What do any of us here? The only book in this whole town about Elven history states that Elves can drink sunlight like water and sustain themselves like flowers. Hardly a stirring testament to its reliability. I wouldn't lay money on any of the old tales being any truer than the Man in the Moon -- certainly not so much that I would jump to all the conclusions your father did."
"He hardly came up with the idea on his own. You know no one here says a peep about Elvish Marks. It's always been that way. Surely there must be a reason for that," Bard said.
"Yes, because a Mark like yours is so very common." Ragna shook her head again. "Well, it hardly matters now. You made your choice, and while I think it was an utterly ridiculous choice to make, I certainly cannot complain. I would be much the poorer if you did."
Passing by Bard, she pressed a kiss to his lips before deftly diverting Bain from grabbing their cat's tail.
Bard could not read or speak Elvish. When he saw the odd bit of script on Elven shipments, it all looked the same to him. But there was one bit of Elvish he knew by heart. He had spent hours looking at the curves and lines of his Mark so that even if he had no idea what it said, he couldn't help but recognize it if he ever saw it.
So, he was stunned to find himself in King Thranduil's tent looking at the King's field table with the King's papers scattered about and see that very scrap of Elvish written on the topmost paper. Not only there, but written in large flowing script that drew the eye from all the other Elvish on the page.
Bard's wrist itched fiercely.
Head snapping up, Bard met the King's curious gaze and he realized his distraction had been noticed.
Bard froze. He could feel his heart hammering in his chest. His palms were sweating, his limbs felt shaky, his mouth was utterly dry, and he was pressing his wrist so hard into his thigh that he thought he might bruise himself.
All his life, Bard had been running from the knowledge contained in the little Mark on his wrist. He'd consciously avoided Elves and all other temptations to his self-control. He'd forcefully pushed aside the daydream of someday meeting his Soulmate, and focused instead on building an ordinary, perfectly respectable life for himself in Laketown.
But his beloved wife was gone now. His home was destroyed, his life upended.
The little voice in his head that sounded like his father was screaming that this was a bad idea -- to keep his mouth shut and ignore what was right in front of him.
But now that the moment had come, Bard cursed himself for not realizing how he'd deceived himself his whole life. He agreed with his parents that it would be a terrible thing to inflict himself upon an Elf he was destined to love -- that it could only end in tragedy.
Not since he was a child had he felt how unfair it was though. Glancing again at the large letters on the paper, Bard realized that he did indeed want to find his Soulmate. He always had. He'd seen how happy his parents were -- how happy all the people who'd managed to find their other halves were -- and he'd wanted that.
He'd found happiness and contentment with his wife but there was always that part of him that wondered. Now, with his wife gone, he couldn't silence that voice any longer.
"Master Bard?" A slight frown marred Thranduil's brow, kicking Bard to finally reply.
Damning himself for his weakness, Bard pointed to the topmost letter. "I, uh, I was just noticing that this word is much larger than the rest of the ones on the page. What does it say?"
He tried to keep his voice disinterested, tried not to give himself away.
Thranduil did not reply right away, and it felt like an eternity. Bard's heart pounded harder in the silence; he was sure the Elvenking must be able to hear it.
Blood was rushing in his ears so that he wasn't sure he heard Thranduil right when the King finally said, "That is my signature. It says Thranduil."
Whatever Bard had been expecting to hear, he wasn't prepared for this. He wanted to say he was utterly blindsided -- that the answer was a total surprise -- and that was why it felt like the world was spinning around him.
But even he couldn't believe that lie.
No, from the moment he'd first seen Thranduil, he'd felt drawn to the Elf. Every time he was near the Elf, it felt like he was breathing for the first time. His thoughts strayed so frequently to the King that only his children were more often on his mind.
And his dreams at night . . .
Bard wasn't ready to admit his attraction but he couldn't deny it either. However, he could believe that he'd misheard Thranduil -- that he'd wanted to hear him say the Mark said Thranduil -- before he could believe that was the actual case though.
This didn't happen in real life. A king and a bowman. An ancient, powerful Elf and a simple widower with three kids. Destined to be together? Bard's life didn't work that way. No one's did. Just because he was utterly bewitched by Thranduil did not earn him a happy ending.
Surely he must be seeing something that wasn't there?
"Is everything alright, Master Bard?" Thranduil asked.
The Elf's gaze seared into Bard's soul. He could feel it burrowing into him like a slowly plunging knife. It was too much, too intense. Bard was going to be left bare and he didn't know what would be revealed.
Unable to stand it, he broke eye contact and muttered, "Yes, of course. Um, I should check on the status of my men's training. I'll, I'll . . . let you know how that's going."
It was all Bard could do not to growl at his useless tongue. Only years of steely self-discipline kept him from turning on his heel and running away.
Thranduil was again silent but Bard wasn't brave enough to look at him properly and read his expression. After a tense moment, Thranduil said, "Of course. I await your report."
A part of Bard was disappointed Thranduil hadn't called him on his odd behavior. Bard wasn't ready for it -- he didn't know what to think about this revelation -- but he wanted to be forced to confront it. His Soulmate was within his grasp and he wanted to reach out.
Hesitating, Bard finally met Thranduil's eyes. The Elf was still watching him with an inscrutable expression. Bard balled his hands into fists as a feeling bubbled up inside him, desperate to get loose.
But in the end, he said nothing. Calling himself every kind of coward, Bard nodded his leave and departed.
Bard found a lonely corner of Dale where he wouldn't be disturbed. The battle was over. His people were tended to. His children were tucked in for the night. He should really be asleep.
But he hadn't had a moment to himself for days now and he needed some quiet. The feeling of being overwhelmed was not new to him but he'd never felt it as intensely as he did now. Bard would've thought being a single father to three small children would've prepared him for anything. If he could handle that, surely he could handle anything.
But his people had declared him king. Everyone was looking at him like he knew what the hell he was doing. He wasn't just responsible for three small children anymore; he was responsible for an entire nation.
Even that, he might have been able to deal with eventually. He wasn't quite sure how but then he hadn't had a clue how to raise his children on his own and somehow he was managing that. It might not be entirely hopeless.
Having King Thranduil as his Soulmate however . . .
Bard buried his head in his hands.
For so long he'd suppressed all thought of his Soulmate. While other lads were daydreaming about what their Soulmate would look like and how they would meet and what they would say, Bard had kept his head down and worried about how he was going to earn his living. He had never participated in such fanciful contemplation, and he found himself utterly unprepared for what to do now.
But, he reasoned, even if he had thought about it, he still would be left scrambling for what to do now. Never in his wildest dreams would he have entertained the notion that the great Elvenking could be his Soulmate.
What was he supposed to say? What could he say?
The whole thing seemed surreal. Bard was still half-sure he had misunderstood something and Thranduil wasn't actually his Soulmate at all . . .
. . . which just made him realize how badly he wanted it to be Thranduil.
Bard sighed and lifted his head. He knew he was very attracted to Thranduil; his dreams hadn't lessened at all over the past few days. He also greatly enjoyed Thranduil's company. Thranduil was a fascinating wealth of knowledge. He had a dry and cutting sense of humor that surprised and delighted Bard.
They had a surprising amount in common. They connected over their shared experiences as fathers. They both had an affinity for animals, and could speak the language of birds. They had both taken on the leadership of their people after a devastating disaster. Bard felt he had found someone who really understood him, and the thought of having Thranduil to come home to and confide in for the rest of his days was very appealing.
Because Bard could feel himself falling for Thranduil, and the thought of the King grieving felt like a knife to Bard's chest. The last thing he wanted to do was cause Thranduil pain, and he had the sinking feeling that was exactly what would happen if he didn't pull away.
And yet he found it impossible to do that. He just couldn't make himself ignore this and move on.
Head whipping around, Bard found Thranduil watching him from only a few feet away. Bard hadn't heard him approach.
"Might I have a word?" Thranduil asked.
Still thrown by the sudden arrival of the very object of his thoughts, Bard stuttered for a moment. Thranduil arched an eyebrow when the pause became overlong, and Bard finally shut his mouth and got a hold of himself. Moving over to make room for the Elf, he said, "Of course. What did you need?"
Thranduil did not reply immediately. He studied Bard for a long moment, and Bard did his best not to betray his inner turmoil. Finally, Thranduil stepped forward to elegantly sit beside Bard on the step.
"My army will be leaving shortly. Some of my people are willing to remain with yours to help you rebuild, and I will, of course, provide you with supplies, but I would like to have the majority of my army returned home before the first winter storms arrive."
Something tightened in Bard's chest hearing these words, though they were not unexpected. "Of course. I understand."
"Before we leave," Thranduil said, "I wish to broach a matter of some importance with you. A cultural miscommunication, if you will."
Bard frowned. "I'm afraid I don't know what you mean."
"I thought as much. In our time together these last few weeks, it has become clear to me that you are suffering under a misconception regarding Elves and Elven bonds."
"Elven bonds?" Bard's tone was hesitant. He wasn't quite sure what Thranduil was going on about but his thoughts went immediately to his Mark. Instinctively he pressed his wrist against his thigh and tried to ignore how it itched.
Thranduil was watching him intently though. His eyes remained locked with Bard's, though Bard could not read the Elvenking's expression. Bard felt the silence like a slowly tightening noose around his throat; it was all he could do not to look away.
Finally, Thranduil said quietly, "I have my own Soulmark, do I not?"
Bard felt like his heart stopped. He could feel the blood draining from his face as he watched Thranduil lift his arm so that his wide sleeve slipped down to his elbow and revealed his Mark.
Surprisingly it was not a name like Bard's. The Mark covered almost half of Thranduil's forearm. It was a stylized dragon in a metallic gold color. It breathed silver flames and its long tail wrapped delicately around Thranduil's wrist. A dark gold circled around the dragon's snake-like body, creating an ornate crown decorated with emeralds. But what drew the eye was the black arrow sticking out of the dragon's body and the three ruby red blood drops seeping from the wound.
It was beautiful.
Bard didn't really notice it though, not when his heart had started up again and was doing its best to beat right out of his chest.
"My lord, I--"
But Thranduil would not let him continue. Calmly, he said, "You will note that my Mark is not a name. You may think that this is usual for Elves but it is not. Elves generally have names for their Marks the same as Men do. But not always. Elves are careful not to use names that have already been taken. It is unavoidable at times, of course, and in such circumstances an image will appear along with the name -- something to further identify the correct mate. But mortal Men frequently reuse names. Are you the first Bard in your line? Did you not name one of your daughters after an ancestress? The names of Men are meaningless in identifying one soul from all others, certainly to an Elf who will live through all the generations of Men. So, an Elf destined for a mortal will not have a name for a Mark."
Bard glanced at Thranduil's wrist but there was no name there.
"There has been much debate about Soulmarks among Elves. We have always had Marks but they are generally meaningless to us. Elves always recognize their mates. We can see beyond the flesh and blood of our hröar to the fëar underneath. We can see the connections that bind us. There is never any question that a Mark would be needed to answer. So, it is something of a question why we have them at all."
Thranduil paused. He continued to study Bard with that intense stare of his, and Bard could almost feel him doing just as he said -- looking beyond Bard's flesh and blood to see his soul.
"Lúthien had a Mark like mine. Do you know of her?" Thranduil asked but he did not wait for Bard to respond. "She was a beautiful Elf-princess who lived a long time ago. She fell in love with a mortal Man and gave up her immortality to be with him. They both died. Do you think her fate is an unhappy one?"
"Yes." Bard spoke before he could think his answer through, but when his mind finally caught up, he found he stood by his answer all the same. This was what he had always worried about. "She was an immortal Elf. She shouldn't have died. If she hadn't met her Soulmate, she would still be around."
"I see," Thranduil said, letting his arm drop down into his lap. His expression was particularly inscrutable and Bard could not guess his thoughts. "As I said: a cultural misunderstanding."
Again Bard frowned. He couldn't think what there was to misunderstand.
Releasing Bard from his gaze, Thranduil turned his attention to the ruins around them while he spoke.
"The union of Elves and Men is a rare one but it is not unprecedented. A Mark such as mine with no name is one that all Elves with mortal Soulmates bear. We have come to discover this through experience. I have known for millennia that I am bonded to a mortal, but that knowledge was not known to my people when my Mark first showed itself. When I did finally understand it, I studied all those Marked similarly to me to understand what my fate had in store for me. I wish to provide you with four examples of Elven-Mannish bonds so you may understand how I have looked upon my own Mark. Before I do, however, I feel that you must first understand how Elves view Soulmates in general."
Against his will, Bard found himself hanging on Thranduil's every word. He'd spent so much time actively avoiding everything to do with his Mark, and that often included avoiding Elves in general. But over the past few days he'd realized how silly he'd been. He was curious. He wanted to know everything there was to know about Elves, and about Thranduil in particular.
"Elves form strong bonds with our families and our friends. We do not value the bond of spouses over all other kinds of bonds. Indeed, you will find many of our Soulbonds form between close kin. This may seem shocking to you as almost all Soulbonds formed among Men are between spouses. Certainly you may believe that is what a Soulbond is for -- to unite two lovers. But it is not the experience of Elves, and even among Men there are rare cases of platonic relationships being deep enough to be Soulbonds. If romantic love is not the heart of a Soulbond, what do you suppose is?"
When he realized that Thranduil actually expected an answer, Bard started. "Um, I don't know. As you say, I have never heard of any other kind of Soulbond than marriage. I didn't realize there were other kinds."
Thranduil nodded as if he'd expected as much. For his part, Bard was suddenly wondering if Thranduil was hinting as such a platonic union for them. While Bard had reservations about bonding with an Elf, he hadn't considered for a moment that it wouldn't be a similar relationship to what he had shared with his wife. He glanced down at his wrist and frowned. He would take Thranduil however he could get him, but he had to admit that he would be disappointed if Thranduil didn't want the same kind of relationship he did.
"I would not be your bonded Mate if our desires were so very different," Thranduil said. Again Bard whipped his head around to look at the Elf. Thranduil was still looking out over the city.
Before Bard could ask if Thranduil could read his mind or if he was just that transparent, the Elf said, "To Elves, a Soulmate is a part of one's self beyond one's self. To discover your Soulmate is to discover a part of yourself you did not know. I suppose that many profound relationships we have in our lives can have a similar impact. But there is a difference. Our closest relationships reveal parts of ourselves that were always there. They reveal depths to our characters we have yet to discover, and challenge us to confront truths we may wish hidden. They help us evolve and grow. But a Soulmate . . ."
Finally Thranduil turned back to look at Bard.
"A Soulmate is a part of you. To find your Soulmate is to find a part of yourself that is lost and is being returned to you. It may be a familiar warmth -- something comforting and recognizable. Or it may be a sparking blaze -- something strange and exciting. But it is always something that you need. It is something that makes you whole. For Elves, our fëar and hröar are in harmony. As cognizant as you are of your body, we are the same for our souls. So, we feel the union of soul-to-soul. To those of us who are destined to have a Soulmate, it is as if we are born without a limb. We are used to existing in this manner and we are content. But then one day, our limb is restored. Adjustments must be made, of course, but a new range of motion and ability is granted us by this restoration. From our observation, Men are not unaware of their situation. Some feel it as a faint longing for something they cannot name. Others may feel nothing until their union and understand their incompleteness only in comparison to their new wholeness. But it does seem that some Men do not feel any differently. They find joy and peace with their Soulmate but do not feel how their souls are united."
Bard's wrist itched fiercely when Thranduil talked about what Men knew, and a deep part of him understood what Thranduil was going on about. But, another part felt very lost. This was over his head. He had never given any thought to the makeup of his being. He was a simple man with simple concerns.
But Thranduil looked so earnest that Bard tried his best to follow what he was saying.
"Many Elves are baffled by your race's inability to feel your fëar," Thranduil said, "For us, it is so obvious. Not only is it obvious, but it is sacred. We who are Children of Eru are thus because of the fëar we are granted. Damage to the fëa is more injurious than damage to the hröa. For an Elf, a hröa may be destroyed but built anew so long as the fëa lives on. Our fëa is our identity. It is the true self. As a gift from the One, it is to be cherished and revered. It is clear from the teachings of the Valar and from our own experience that those born with Marks are meant to bind souls with another to achieve the completeness of their fëar. Because the fëa is revered, it is only natural that Elves would also venerate the union of Soulmates. To us, it is a blessing. It is something we look forward to with great anticipation. Whatever form our Soulmate takes is immaterial to our community. We believe it is ordained and we accept it as such. It cannot be wrong. Do you understand?"
"I . . ." Bard faltered. He wanted to say he did but he felt that even if he was following what Thranduil was saying, he wasn't really getting what he meant.
Seeing his hesitation, Thranduil tried again. "Elves appreciate all the bonds we make with others in our lives but the bond of Soulmates is seen as unique and sacred. We feel the bond differently than we feel other bonds. Do you understand that Elves hold Soulbonds in a special regard?"
Bard nodded tentatively.
Thranduil studied him for a moment -- perhaps weighing if he should try to further clarify -- but he eventually gave himself a little nod and turned his attention away again.
Looking out over the city, he said, "I told you that there were four examples I wished to impart to you. Four examples of Men and Elves who were Soulbonded. The first I believe you will be most familiar with, though you are unlikely to know any of the particulars. There was once an Elf-maid living in Lórien who followed her mistress to the sea and there met a great Lord of Men. I do not recall his name but hers was Mithrellas. Mithrellas recognized him as her Soulmate and they were united. She bore him children and they lived together for many years. But one night, she slipped away never to be seen again. She could not bear to see her husband grow old or to watch her children die. So, she left."
Bard swallowed, heartily glad that Thranduil wasn't looking in his direction. No, he did not know of this Mithrellas but that was the kind of tale told in Laketown. Bitterness followed the sweet. The unnamed lord had died alone, and the Elf likely lived in sorrow even now or had faded away.
Glancing at Thranduil, Bard felt how keenly he did not want that fate for him.
Without turning, Thranduil continued on. "Another union of Elf and Man that is not as well known is that of Aegnor and Andreth. Their story stretches back to the First Age. They met on Morgoth's doorstep where Aegnor kept the Siege of Angband, and Andreth's people dwelled. They met in her youth and saw that they were bonded. But Aegnor retreated from her. He preferred to keep her memory evergreen in his mind rather than to be parted by old age and fading. Elves live in their memory. There are many who would rather have a memory that is fair but unfinished than one that goes on to a sorrowful end. He will forever remember her as the young maid he met, and in that memory she will gain some portion of immortality. But that would be no comfort to her. They both died before their time in the wars, but had that not been so, I think Aegnor would have come to rue his decision. I am sure she certainly did for I know the memory of Men is not as it is to Elves."
Bard felt the knife in his heart twist a little harder. Was Thranduil trying to convince him of what he'd always known? That to love an Elf was to damn them both? Because he was doing a great job of it. Bard did not want to be just a memory to Thranduil, fair and happy though he might seem. He wanted to live together. He wanted them to argue and make up, to laugh at each other's jokes and wipe away each other's tears. He wanted a life with Thranduil.
But he already knew that was the last thing he should have.
"These first two stories I have told you are examples I think you know well. You do not know names, of course, but you know of the heartache. It is whispered among Elf-friends how the hurt and grief lingered -- how joy turned to despair. For these two tales, I think there is some truth to that. But I do not think the lessons you have learned are the right lessons these tales teach."
Again Thranduil turned to look at Bard. His eyes glowed in the darkening gloom so that Bard could still see them clearly. The intensity pinned Bard to the spot. He could not look away. He could barely breathe.
It made his Mark itch fiercely.
"I have two more examples for you -- two more unions that will prove my point. The first I have already told you. Lúthien the Elven princess who gave her immortality for her mortal love Beren. Lúthien, whose story you deem to be a tragedy. Do you know anything more of her tale? Do you know how hard she fought to be united with her lover? How she defied the father she loved above all others to bring Beren to court? How she was imprisoned by and almost forced to marry an Elf who would one day kill her son? How she overmatched Sauron and sent him fleeing so that she could rescue her lover from his own imprisonment? How they went together to face Morgoth but by her power alone they wrested a Silmaril -- a Holy Jewel -- from the Dark Lord himself? And when her lover died, did she sit idly by and mourn? No!"
Lightening flared in Thranduil's eyes as he said, "No, she fled after him and petitioned the Lord of Mandos for his release. It is well known that she sang a song of such beauty that it moved Námo to tears. Her song wove the sorrow of the Elves with the grief of Men. But she sang also of the Mark she and her beloved shared -- a Mark that spoke of their shared destiny. The Elves learned much about Marks from the Valar themselves. It was they who helped us understand that our fëar were made by Eru, and that our Marks were tied to our souls. Lúthien demanded that the Valar acknowledge what her Mark told her -- that she was meant to share the fate of her Mate. It was not the Valar who demanded her immortality from her. She did not give up her soul as a price to be paid for her lover's return. No, she tied her soul to his and brought him back to life so that when he died again, they would always be together. Elves do not know where the souls of Men go when they die but Lúthien made sure that wherever it was, she would go too. Beren was her other half. He was her missing limb. Once returned to her, she refused to be parted. By the strength of her will, she ensured that they would be together forever."
"But they are still dead," Bard said. "She is still gone from this world. Did she not have family? Friends? Was she not loved? And all those who love her, they are still in the world to this day, aren't they? They must endure without her. Is that not a tragedy?"
Thranduil shook his head, looking a little disappointed. "You still do not understand. Yes, she was well-loved among Elves. She was the jewel of our people and we are dimmed by her loss. But are Elves so selfish that we would force her to stay among us after she had found her other half? As terrible as her loss is, the thought of her having to endure with half a bond is utterly repugnant to us. There is nothing more vile. No fate more terrible. For an Elf, it would be like having your limb ripped off and unable to ever be healed. Can you imagine the pain? Nerves left exposed, blood continually draining away, gangrene slowly rotting away the flesh. That is as close as I can come to making you understand how it would be for her. How it is for Mithrellas, wherever she is. Elves see the fëa as sacred. While we miss her, we are comforted that she made the choice that seemed right to her and that she is still whole. She was right when she spoke to Mandos. She was meant to be with Beren. They were meant to share the same fate. It is Eru's will, and Elves believe that means that it is good."
Thranduil looked sick at the mere suggestion that Elves would even contemplate keeping Lúthien with them now. Bard could practically feel how it upset the Elf, and it distressed him to be the cause.
But he still struggled with the portrait Thranduil would paint. He understood the first two examples of Mithrellas and Aegnor. And he felt he understood this too. Lúthien was dead when she should not be. Elves often lauded the death of Men as a Gift from Ilúvatar. Bard didn't think they really understood what it was to be mortal. He didn't think Lúthien really understood her choice; how could she?
And if she didn't understand it, then how could it be the right choice to make?
"I can see you still do not understand," Thranduil said quietly. He had been watching Bard struggle with what he was saying, and his expression had softened. "But I have one last example to tell you and perhaps that will make things clear to you."
Thranduil shifted a little closer to Bard. "Beyond my forest there is a great mountain range and beyond that lies a snug little valley where a great Elf-lord lives. His name is Elrond, and he is a master of healing and lore. He is also a Peredhel -- a Half-Elf. He is the descendant of Lúthien and Beren. He is the good that came from their union. But they are not the only ones from whom his nature sprung. For there was another union of Man and Elf that begat him. His grandmother was an Elven princess named Idril. She married a Man named Tuor. Together they saved her people from ruin and brought about the instrument of salvation for all who lived in Beleriand in the First Age. Do you know their fate?"
Bard shook his head.
Smiling gently, Thranduil said, "When their son was grown, Tuor built a great ship and sailed away with his Mate. It is said among Elves that he alone of mortal Men can be numbered among the Elven race for his fate was sundered from the fate of Men. Indeed, Elrond expects to be reunited with his grandparents when he finally crosses the Sea. Tuor joined with the Elves and remains to this day. Is his tale unhappy?"
"That's not . . . That can't be true," Bard said.
Thranduil responded to Bard's incredulity with a raised eyebrow. "Why? Why couldn't they be living happily in Valinor?"
"Because he's a mortal Man! We've always been told that the fate of Men is to die. It is the only thing that separates Men from Elves -- the only real thing. It is our 'Gift'. Any time we bemoan our fate, Elves are quick to tell us that we are lucky and we should be grateful for we do not understand immortality. If Men can just not die, then what is the point of us? Where do we fit in the grand design?"
Bard wasn't one for philosophical musings but he had heard the arguments before. Living so near Elves, Men were obviously drawn to make comparisons. And what point of comparison was the obvious one to make? Men envied the immortality of Elves. Of course they had pondered how they could use Elven immortality to gain their own.
But history was littered with the failures of such enterprises. The Númenóreans had gathered an armada of ships and sailed to Valinor with the intention of taking Elvish immortality by force. For their troubles, their fleet was washed away and their island sunk.
On a smaller scale, Men had dreamed that having an Elven Soulmate might earn them a share of that Elf's immortality. And yet every story of such a match always ended in tragedy. It was made clear in a hundred thousand ways that there was no escaping death for Men. Death was the natural order of things and nothing could change that.
And now Thranduil expected him to believe there actually was a loophole?
Bard didn't buy it.
Thranduil was shaking his head at Bard. "It is hubris to think you or I or anyone here in Arda could understand Eru's mind. I would not make such a bold attempt and nor should you. But I will say that I can readily believe that Tuor is indeed living happily with his Mate in Valinor because from everything we know about Marks and fëar and the nature of Elves and Men, it makes perfect sense."
"How? How could that make perfect sense? Men and Elves are on two sides of a great gulf that can never be crossed. It has always been that way and it will always be." Bard's tone was showing his frustration. He didn't want to be having this argument. He didn't want this unrealistic hope dangled in front of him when he knew it could never be. Why was Thranduil insisting on this?
Perhaps sensing that he was losing Bard, Thranduil took a deep breath and visibly calmed himself. "Bard, you are my Soulmate. You are a part of me. Our souls are meant to be together. Where you go, I would follow. I would do that because it would bring me peace and happiness. If that means following you beyond this realm to go where dead Men go, then so be it. My kinsmen would be sorrowed by my loss but no more than you are sorrowful when you lose one of your kin to ripe old age. Elves understand that this is a possibility. My family, my kingdom -- they have all known this could be my fate someday. It is no more a surprise than your own mortality. Of the tales I have told you, Elves deem the first two to be unnatural. Mithrellas severed her bond and Aegnor refused to acknowledge his. That goes against all we believe about Soulbonds."
Unexpectedly, Thranduil reached out and took Bard's hand. With his free hand he gently laid two fingers over the Mark on Bard's wrist.
"Lúthien fought for her bond and Idril did not abandon hers. That is how it should go, and that is why they ended happy. I know you do not believe Lúthien's fate was happy but I guarantee that was exactly how she felt it was. You also do not believe Tuor and Idril could still be alive together today because mortal Men are meant to die. But the thing about the bond between Elves and Men is that it should go both ways. You would say there is a chasm between our races but I would say that the chasm is not natural. We are both Children of Eru. We were meant to be together. Yes, it has brought sorrow and grief but it has brought joy and triumph too. And I would say the joy is all the sweeter for the pain. That is why I believe there are unions such as ours. They are meant to draw our peoples close together and to remind us that we do belong with one another."
Thranduil's fingers slid over Bard's wrist and Bard felt it like a static charge ricocheting up his nerves.
"To bridge the divide is not an easy task. It requires sacrifice. Lúthien sacrificed her future with her family. They will not see her to the world's ending. As for Tuor . . . Death is a Gift. We have not lied about that, and that is why I believe that Tuor is still alive. Because he was the one who made the sacrifice. He has sacrificed his Death and his chance to be reunited with his own family beyond the circles of the world. He will endure as Elves must and he may be wearied of it in the end."
Finally, Thranduil broke eye contact to look down at Bard's Mark. To be so suddenly released from the Elf's hypnotic gaze made Bard dizzy.
Quietly, Thranduil said, "If we are to be together, one of us must make such a sacrifice. You may be right that the likeliest outcome is that when you die, I will suffer a mortal death too. I will be sundered from all I love to follow you to a fate no one knows. But . . . it isn't a certainty that this is our fate. It isn't the only fate possible. You might be the one called upon to make a sacrifice and even harder would it be for you than for Tuor. You would outlast your children and your children's children. Even if your new kingdom should last ten thousand years, you would outlast it. Men think immortality is what they want, but they do not truly understand this desire. What they really desire is more time than they are allotted. Perhaps it is a great deal more time. Perhaps you could stand to live a hundred thousand years as easily as you could spend a day. But there will come a time when you weary of the world -- when you weary of all the works of your hand decaying into dust while you still endure. When you have tried everything there is to be tried, said everything there is to be said, and thought every thought you can think to think. Worse would it be for you than for another for you will have no family that remains to you save me."
Bard's insides felt like ice as Thranduil spoke of the loss of his children. All his life, Bard had worried about the mysterious Elf whose name he bore. He knew he had the power to hurt this Elf dearly. He hadn't considered that he could be equally hurt. Bard didn't mind taking on burdens. To him, if he had to suffer for those he loved, then it wasn't suffering at all.
The thought of outlasting his children though . . .
That indeed was a heavy sacrifice, and clearly Thranduil knew it. When he looked up and met Bard's eyes, Thranduil's expression was sympathetic and understanding.
"Lúthien was blessed to be granted the Gift of Death. Do not doubt that. Tuor was raised by Elves and lived always among them his whole life. If any mortal Man could endure the trials of immortality with grace and wisdom, it would be him. Bard . . . whatever happens, I am not afraid. Whatever sacrifice is asked of us, I am happy to pay it. I have waited for you for two Ages. I have known all that time that I would bind myself to a mortal Man. I am prepared for that. But I wasn't prepared for you. When I saw you on the shores of Laketown, I knew you were the one I had waited so long for. I knew it before I knew you were the one who slew Smaug or that your people would call you king."
Thranduil let go of Bard's hand to lift his own for a moment, showcasing the signs of his Mark by which he would know his Soulmate.
"I had no idea what to expect from my Mate, but I have been delighted with every moment we have spent together. I have enjoyed working with you to solve the problems you face and watching you dote on your children. I have pleased myself with provoking a smile from you, and I can see you will prove a challenge on that score for many years to come. I can so easily see a future together, and I wish for nothing more than to explore that. I knew intellectually that you were a part of me but I can feel my missing limb now. I can feel where you fit within me. Your soul calls out to mine, and I wish desperately to answer. Let me in, Bard. I know you desire the same thing. I know you are one of those Men who feels what you are missing. You can feel whole now. Do not let your fear sway you."
Hearing the conflicted tone in Bard's voice, Thranduil used his free hand to put a finger to Bard's lips to keep him from saying more.
"I have told you these four tales to illustrate something fundamental and so that you can understand me. I have faith, Bard. Aegnor and Mithrellas did not trust that their end would be happy and so it wasn't. But Lúthien and Tuor trusted in their Marks, and that has led them to joy. Whatever sacrifice they have made, it does not rob them of their joy. They are with their Mates, and that is no small thing for an Elf. You would deny yourself the same joy because you fear hurting me. I tell you that in doing so you hurt me the deepest. There have not been many Elves and Men who were destined to be together but there are enough that I feel confident in saying that a happy ending or a sad one is entirely in our own hands. We can trust that Eru has a plan for us and if we have faith in it, we will not be led astray. He will not ask more of either of us than we can bear. I believe that. Bard, you will not hurt me by loving me. And I do not think I will hurt you by pulling you into my world. If you must give up your family, I will give you mine to help you bear the loss. And if I must leave the confines of this world, I will be happy so long as I do not do it alone. Have faith, Bard. Let yourself be happy."
Bard looked down to where Thranduil was still gently touching his Mark. The feeling of that whisper-soft caress traveled through his whole body, bringing with it that itchy feeling he always had with his Mark.
Looking up, he met Thranduil's eyes. Finally Thranduil's expression was readable and Bard knew his Elf was doing that on purpose. Thranduil was leaving himself open and vulnerable so Bard could see him rightly.
What Bard saw was the fragile hope Thranduil bore. Bard realized that Thranduil really did want this. Thranduil really did want him.
But that was not what decided Bard. Coupled with the tentative hope lighting Thranduil's eyes was a shadow of fear. It was suddenly clear to Bard that as much as Thranduil hoped Bard would accept their union, he feared Bard would not. The longer Bard was quiet, the shadow grew. He could see the barriers being formed as Thranduil prepared to wall up his heart against the hurt he would feel at Bard's rejection.
There had always been one constant in Bard's life. He never wished to hurt his Soulmate, and he realized that right now he could hurt Thranduil far worse than his death could do.
Still feeling the implausibility of the moment, Bard nonetheless reached out his free hand to slip his fingers against the softness of Thranduil's cheek. He touched his Elf as he would something breakable and precious. Thranduil closed his eyes and leaned into the touch as Bard's fingers slid down towards his jaw and cupped his cheek.
Thranduil had clearly surrendered to Bard's touch. He had surrendered to the feelings Bard engendered in him. He had surrendered to whatever their future held.
It was so fucking brave and Bard could only try to be half so trusting. He had never given a second thought to Eru or the Valar. They didn't do anything for him in his day-to-day struggles as far as he could tell. Ragna had believed though. And Thranduil clearly did too. If Bard couldn't believe in Eru, he could believe in Thranduil.
Gently pulling Thranduil to him to taste the first of many kisses, Bard thought that was enough for him.
Unnoticed, his wrist finally stopped itching.
Chapter 2: Notes
Written for HK Prompt:
Bard/Thranduil - Soulmate AU
"Again, cause every fandom needs one. Bard and Thranduil both loved their former wives, despite the fact they weren't fated mates. Now as these two Kings are brought together for war, Bard is finally told what the Elvish script on his wrist says."
• fëa, plural fëar - "soul" (or "spirit")
• hröa, plural hröar - "body"
• fae, plural faer - "soul" Sindarin
• rhaw - "body" Sindarin
• I'm using "fëa" and "hröa" instead of the Sindarin "fae" and "rhaw" because I couldn't find a plural for "rhaw".
• Tolkien actually did have a legend about the Man in the Moon named Uolë Kúvion
• The following are Tolkien quotes from various sources that have inspired this fic. I will say the Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth was the biggest inspiration. If you ever wondered what Tolkien's thoughts were on immortality and mortality and how the Elves and Men viewed such things, you should definitely give this a shot. It explains so much about Elvish religion and about the role of Men in Middle-earth, and it also has a romance in it. You also get to see a very wise woman call an Elf on some of his bullshit. Seriously, check it out. It's fascinating.
Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth:
"'Alas, you speak near the truth,' said Finrod. 'At least of many of my people; but not of all, and certainly not of me. But consider this well, Andreth, when we name you "Children of Eru" we do not speak lightly; for that name we do not utter ever in jest or without full intent. When we speak so, we speak out of knowledge, not out of mere Elvish lore; and we proclaim that ye are our kin, in a kinship far closer (both of hröa and fëa) than that which binds together all other creatures of Arda, and ourselves to them."
"The gulf, maybe, is between our fates rather, for else we are close akin, closer than any other creatures in the world. Yet perilous is it to cross a gulf set by doom; and should any do so, they will not find joy upon the other side, but the griefs of both. So I deem.
'But why dost thou say "mere words"? Do not words overpass the gulf between one life and another? Between thee and me surely more has passed than empty sound? Have we not drawn near at all? But that is, I think, little comfort to thee.'"
"Andreth adaneth, the life and love of the Eldar dwells much in memory; and we (if not ye) would rather have a memory that is fair but unfinished than one that goes on to a grievous end. Now he will ever remember thee in the sun of morning, and that last evening by the water of Aeluin in which he saw thy face mirrored with a star caught in thy hair - ever, until the North-wind brings the night of his flame. Yea, and after that, sitting in the House of Mandos in the Halls of Awaiting until the end of Arda.'
'And what shall I remember?' said she. 'And when I go to what halls shall I come? To a darkness in which even the memory of the sharp flame shall be quenched? Even the memory of rejection. That at least.'"
"In the tradition of his house Angelimar was the twentieth in unbroken descent from Galador, first Lord of Dol Amroth (c. Third Age 2004-2129). According to the same traditions Galador was the son of Imrazór the Númenórean, who dwelt in Belfalas, and the Elven-lady Mithrellas. She was one of the companions of Nimrodel, among many of the Elves that fled to the coast about the year 1980 of the Third Age, when evil arose in Moria; and Nimrodel and her maidens stayed in the wooded hills, and were lost. But in this tale it is said that Imrazór harboured Mithrellas, and took her to wife. But when she had borne him a son, Galador, and a daughter, Gilmith, she slipped away by night and he saw her no more. But though Mithrellas was of the lesser Silvan race (and not of the High Elves or the Grey) it was ever held that the house and kin of the Lords of Dol Amroth was noble by blood as they were fair in face and mind."
"But in after days it was sung that Tuor alone of mortal Men was numbered among the elder race, and was joined with the Noldor, whom he loved; and his fate is sundered from the fate of Men."
"The song of Lúthien before Mandos was the song most fair that ever in words was woven, and the song most sorrowful that ever the world shall ever hear. Unchanged, imperishable, it is sung still in Valinor beyond the hearing of the world, and the listening the Valar grieved. For Lúthien wove two themes of words, of the sorrow of the Eldar and the grief of Men, of the Two Kindreds that were made by Ilúvatar to dwell in Arda, the Kingdom of Earth amid the innumerable stars. And as she knelt before him her tears fell upon his feet like rain upon stones; and Mandos was moved to pity, who never before was so moved, nor has been since.
Therefore he summoned Beren, and even as Lúthien had spoken in the hour of his death they met again beyond the Western Sea. But Mandos had no power to withhold the spirits of Men that were dead within the confines of the world, after their time of waiting; nor could he change the fates of the Children of Ilúvatar. He went therefore to Manwë, Lord of the Valar, who governed the world under the hand of Ilúvatar; and Manwë sought counsel in his inmost thought, where the will of Ilúvatar was revealed.
These were the choices that he gave to Lúthien. Because of her labours and her sorrow, she should be released from Mandos, and go to Valimar, there to dwell until the world's end among the Valar, forgetting all griefs that her life had known. Thither Beren could not come. For it was not permitted to the Valar to withhold Death from him, which is the gift of Ilúvatar to Men. But the other choice was this: that she might return to Middle-earth, and take with her Beren, there to dwell again, but without certitude of life or joy. Then she would become mortal, and subject to a second death, even as he; and ere long she would leave the world for ever, and her beauty become only a memory in song.
This doom she chose, forsaking the Blessed Realm, and putting aside all claim to kinship with those that dwell there; that thus whatever grief might lie in wait, the fates of Beren and Lúthien might be joined, and their paths lead together beyond the confines of the world. So it was that alone of the Eldalië she has died indeed, and left the world long ago. Yet in her choice the Two Kindreds have been joined; and she is the forerunner of many in whom the Eldar see yet, though all the world is changed, the likeness of Lúthien the beloved, whom they have lost."