Gil-galad broke from formation as soon as he'd gained the boundaries of the hidden valley, lifting a hand to signal the remainder of his retinue not to follow and turning his horse away from the bridge path and into the trees.
Already it was cooler than the lands above, out of the direct heat of the sun, and breezes began to find cooling chinks in his armour. He drew up at last further upstream, where between the trees the deer path overlooked the river course and the slope of the valley wall opposite. He dismounted, and touched Mely's shoulder, releasing the mare to investigate the brightest leaves of new growth at the tips of the lowest branches. She was a new mount, known to him only the length of the journey from Lindon, but she was strongly built, steady, and hadn't minded the frustration that had followed him from the coast near the full width of Eriador.
Less than two months past, a trade envoy from Numenor's colonies at Umbar had brought poisoned steel to the Court of Lindon, purposed to kill the king. To break the Elven monopoly on the area, he had said. To gain power, to claim further trade routes for Numenor, for money and reward- but the longer the Man had spoken, the more apparent had been the Shadow that influenced him, the darkness driving his greed towards the Enemy's ends.
Gil-galad had seen one of his guards slain in his stead. He had taken part in that interrogation. He had given the order for execution, further orders to separate the Numenorean factions from Pelargir and Umbar who had threatened to bring further bloodshed to the harbor. And then, the ships of Men having been sent forth, Gil-galad had left his city, and made for haven of a different kind.
Anger had burned on through the Blue Mountains and past the Tower Hills, only to fade and be supplanted with frustration at self and allies alike by the time they crossed the sticky marshes. Summer was the wrong time to travel, and the sun had only encouraged his discontent, baking him and his worries alike inside his armour.
The High King sat down in the grass, in the shade, and stripped off his gloves finger by finger. The branches overhead filtered out the early afternoon sunlight that had pierced the valley walls, and the warm shadows were growing deeper. The breeze carried the taste of water from the falls.
Imladris felt, in every way, like its Lord, and Gil-galad let that surround him.
The afternoon lengthened. The track of a single patch of sun was receding past the tip of his boot when he felt Elrond's approach. The sound carried, back along the path, making Mely's ears twitch as Elrond spoke to Gil-galad's captain, and the horses moved away. Not so many as before- some had already gone ahead down to Elrond's house. Well enough.
Gil-galad lifted his eyes from the play of the water, and let the sounds filter through him. He had found a measure of calm, enough to sit in the afternoon warmth and watch his herald approach without shifting a sinew. The sight of him was like the relief of shade after overmuch sun.
Gil-galad held out his arms without rising, and Elrond sank down onto the earth beside him, and answered the awkward angle of his embrace with equal force, stealing the breath from his lungs.
"Gwador. I'm glad you're safe."
"So am I." But it was a long time breathing in the musk of Elrond's hair before Gil-galad released him to draw apart. He loosed his fingers from Elrond's thin tunic, a warm grey-brown with twists of purple embroidering the throat, wrists, hem. Meant to be worn with an outer robe, which was nowhere in evidence, and Elrond's hair was knotted in patterns that contained its fall over his shoulders- the remnants of a lovely outfit to await his king's coming, now just the edge of mussed from climbing the valley to meet a recalcitrant guest. Elrond's smile is rueful, aware of Gil-galad's appraisal.
"I have spoiled your reception."
"You have not. A good host answers his guest's needs."
A good guest would not sit on the ground to think, forcing his host to come fetch him in, but he trusted Elrond would not fault him for it. Gil-galad let Elrond settle beside him, and pointed across to the far side of the valley.
"What are the stones, set among the rocks there? Green, and clear, and gold?
"Beryls and quartzes and... tourmaline, I believe. One of ours laid them out as a contemplation maze, a small-scale labyrinth to be walked in meditation. There is a pattern to it, though not all is visible from here."
"Hmm. And does it work?"
"I confess I've yet to try it. Lord Glorfindel tells me there were stone-marked meditation walks in Gondolin, and I can well believe it. I hope Imladris may never need to be so enclosed again."
The reminder of the threat of renewed war drew the tension taut in Gil-galad's shoulders. As it had each time his thoughts returned to the East, and Numenor's murderous envoys. Being unable to trust the Men of Numenor was an itch beneath his skin. These men were had been good friends, and good allies, for so many years- but they changed so quickly, with each generation. And now...
"You know why I am here?"
"I know why you are not in Lindon, and why Numenor's ships have been sent home in haste." Elrond paused, and Gil-galad tracked the flight of a lazy bumblebee, fat and drifting on air. "I do not know if it is early for the Enemy's poison to have spread so far, or if we should have expected such years sooner."
The bee stooped to a flower, fumbled as its weight bends the stalk beneath it, flounders between the leaves before righting itself again. Verlen had floundered also, against the floor of his hall, when the man of Umbar's blade had found its mark. Gil-galad closed his eyes.
"But you were unharmed."
"As you see." He extended his hands, turning them over to offer uninjured palms to Elrond's inspection, whereupon they were caught and clasped. Elrond's thumbs dug into the base of his palms in a slow massage, and a distracting, pleasant energy seeped warm and strange into his hands.
"And now? What do you fear?"
This is a harder thing to speak, for all Elrond is the one who will best understand it. "Numenor is faltering. There are cracks, splinterings, and Sauron's barbs are digging in, gaining him foothold among them. It grows harder to see Elros in these Men, with each generation." He clasps his hand around Elrond's, feeling the sorrow echo between them. "Some are true, and will remain so, but too many are swayed.
Elrond stilled his touch, holding Gil-galad's hands loose in his own. "Is it become like Eregion?"
"No. And yet also yes. It is difficult to gain the full picture from what the seafarers will tell us, though some were forced to speak more than their wont this time. The Men know Mordor's evil, they are not seduced in ignorance as Celebrimbor was- but they are seduced by something. Evil is coming of it already. More will follow."
The shadows that passed over Elrond's countenance are wretchedly familiar, but the furrow of his brow brings fondness welling up in Gil-galad like clear water. The years, the work of Arda have left their mark more easily on half-elven skin, and Gil-galad pulls him close again to kiss the faintest of lines at the corner of Elrond's eye.
"But evil will do nothing this moment, and I am still a terrible guest. There will be time enough for planning."
While they had spoken dusk was deepening, evening creeping past the lip of the valley, and lights were being lit in the courtyards, and in the distant windows. A lightning bug joined the lamps, alighting and flashing on the knee of his riding breeches, the knot of Elrond's hair.
"I should like to draw you again. As you are here." He reached out his hand to Elrond's face, and Elrond leaned into his palm, cheekbone to Gil-galad's thumb, and other, warmer things supplanted worry in his eyes. "These last few times, we have met in Lindon- I know the shape and feel of you in Lindon. I want to know you here. In your waterfalls, by your river. Do you still keep the hall for storytelling?" At Elrond's nod he smiled, and his thumb caressed the corner of Elrond's upturned lips. "Then there, also. With the firelight on your skin, and your hair, and songs in your eyes."
Elrond sat forward, kissing first his palm and then his lips, and Gil-galad shuddered beneath the contact.
"You are a flatterer, a joy, and an endless worry, my king."
"My Elrond. My herald, my voice, my envoy. My friend. Have I told you this century how much I hate having had to send you forth? And you've made such success here that it would be senseless and stupid to recall you, however I miss you."
The points of Elrond's ears were pink with more than the lingering heat of the summer sun. "Perhaps there was enough Noldor in me to want to create my own little realm."
With the aid and height of the valley walls, the first stars were just then becoming visible, and a silvan voice further below decided to alert all in earshot with a song. Gil-galad laughed low in his throat.
"I like your realm." He rose to stand beside Elrond, and gathered up Mely's reins.
"Then be welcome." Elrond leaned close, and drew Gil-galad deep into his kiss. "Be always welcome in my house."