Elrond and Gil-Galad stood before the Ezellohâr, looking on the skeletons of what had once been the Two Trees. For his part, Elrond could not quite say how they had gotten here; he had been lost in conversation with his friend and thought they had been wandering aimlessly in the gardens outside Valmar. Clearly Gil-Galad had had other plans in mind. But why?
Elrond could not fathom it. Indeed, he had avoided this place ever since he had arrived in Valinor. Celebrían’s Vanyarin kin had cared for her when she had sailed west all those years ago, and in the intervening centuries she had forged a life for herself as one of Vairë’s handmaidens. It only made sense that Elrond would live beside her in Valmar. And Gil-Galad lived there as well, a pleasure Elrond had certainly not expected.
Still, Elrond found himself ill at ease in this valley that had once been lit by Telperion and Laurelin. He had not seen it at the height of its glory, of course, but the half-light reminded him of other marrings, and of the jewel that had compelled his mother to cast herself from the cliffs of Sirion. He had little enough need for reminders that the world was broken. Nor, he had always assumed, did Gil-Galad. Why would one who had died as violently as he had seek out history’s scars?
“Why did we come this way?” he asked at last. Gil-galad had always encouraged Elrond to speak honestly with him, and in any case Elrond could not see a less blunt way to broach the matter. Gil-galad turned away from the Trees so he faced Elrond more directly. “I could see why Galadriel might be drawn here,” he added, “or even Fingolfin, when he was reborn. But what makes you think I would wish to look on it? Or what draws you here, for that matter?”
“I do not come for the joy of it,” Gil-Galad said, laughing bitterly. “But there was something you said at dinner yesterday night that made me think perhaps you needed to journey here.”
Elrond thought back on their conversation the past evening. Galadriel had carried the conversation, as was her wont; she had been telling Gil-galad of the improvements the Galadhrim had made to the longbow’s design, and of other little ways Middle-earth had changed since Gil-Galad had last seen it. Elrond had found himself a little bored at that topic and had paid more attention to his wine-glass than he had to the finer points of bow-construction. He did remember being surprised that Gil-Galad cared so much about archery as he evidently did, when Elrond had always seen him with a spear in hand. What had he said then?
He blushed at the memory. “I meant no disrespect,” he said at last. Frowning, he added, “Actually I’m not quite sure what I meant. I didn’t mean anything much in particular, truthfully, when I said you rushed into battle over easily for my taste. You were not nearly so reckless a general as Oropher.”
Gil-Galad clasped him on the shoulder. “First me and now Oropher. Would you insult Ingwë and be done with all three kindreds?” Elrond started to correct his statement to something more politic, but Gil-Galad forestalled him. “I was not insulted. In truth I have missed your ‘brazen tongue,’ as you once put it. But you have changed from the herald I knew. Even last night, with your mind blurred with too much wine, you chose your words more carefully than you ever would have in Lindon.”
Elrond looked wearily to the trees for a moment before turning back to face Gil-Galad. “This charred wood,” he said, “it reminds me of something my sons once saw. After a battle near Mirkwood. There was a dragon, and it breathed fire down on a town of men built on a lake, and burned the trees by the lake’s shore as well. My sons fought in that battle, though they came to Laketown after Smaug had done his mischief.”
He closed his eyes, trying to banish the image that sprung up before him. When Elladan had told him about those trees he had felt physically ill. Quite aside from the senseless destruction of trees, the scene seemed perilously similar to what might have happened in Imladris. Those trees could have been his own, and the children turned into orphans overnight might have been his own people.
At last he said to Gil-Galad, “That battle is not even a hundred years old, as men reckon it. As unlikely as it may seem, until that point I still thought of Imladris as a sanctuary. As if Sauron could not cross the Bruinen. I do not mean that the years were easy; Isildur’s folk all but faltered, and war always demands some sacrifice. But something about that last battle shook my certainty in a better future.”
Gil-Galad looked at him appraisingly. “The duties of command are wearing, to be sure. But you have but told me half the story.”
Elrond had withered often enough under that stare. When he was younger it had burned into him so he felt compelled to look away. Now, however, he was a lord in his own right and every inch Gil-Galad’s equal. “How much do you know of later events?” Elrond asked. “Of the end of that first war against Sauron?”
“I know enough,” Gil-Galad said. “Some of your own people have sailed west and I have gathered the broad strokes of those later events.” Fixing Elrond mercilessly in his gaze, he said, “Amroth told me how angry you were, when you and Isildur and Círdan first came out from the Cracks of Doom after Sauron’s fall. And he said he felt an evil … presence, from the land where at last Isildur fell.”
Elrond nodded, mutely. He had not expected Gil-Galad to know all of that, much less to accept it so calmly. A great tension rushed out of him, and it was all he could do to keep his hands from shaking. Gil-Galad clasped Elrond's hands in his own and, leaning closer, he kissed his friend on the forehead as Maglor once had.
For a long moment Elrond leaned against Gil-Galad, relying on his erstwhile king's strength. Gil-galad had always been more than a lord to him: a friend, yes, but in his way a father in Maglor's stead. Elrond had not realized until just that moment how wearied he had grown, standing alone these last three thousand years.
After a moment he clapped his free hand on Gil-Galad's forehead and took a half-step back so he no longer leaned on Gil-Galad. "After you died," Elrond said, "after Elendil died, Sauron at last turned his attention to Isildur. Surely you know of what came after? How Isildur cut off Sauron's ring, and how the form Sauron had clothed himself in fell to the ground. Isildur thought him dead, vanquished for good, though Círdan and I suspected he could not be conquered so easily. How could we not, after Eregion? But Isildur would not be gainsaid. He claimed Sauron's ring as weregild and would not let it be destroyed, no matter how strongly we counselled him."
At that a laugh wracked Elrond's chest and he shook his head in dismay. "'Counselled' does not do the matter justice. Círdan may have 'counselled,' but I impugned him. Commanded. Even begged. I did not know the truth – I could point to no proofs, I mean – but somewhere within myself I recognized Vilya's kin. I knew it was no bauble, and I knew it had to be destroyed. I thought to take the ring from Isildur, throw both of us into the fire if need be."
Gil-Galad's eyes had lost the piercing sharpness that so often marked them; Elrond thought he saw pity, or at the least understanding. The elf opened his mouth as if to speak but closed it again without a word and sat down unceremoniously on the grass. Looking up at Elrond, Gil-Galad motioned to the grass beside him and Elrond sat down as well. "I would have done the same, ion-nín, " he said softly. "Isildur's claim was reasonable according to mannish custom. Wearied by battle, and by long siege before that... I would have done the same."
He took a halting breath. The grass under his palms soothed him, and he eased his fingers into the moist soil. "Perhaps," Elrond said. "Perhaps Manwë himself would have acted just as I did. But he – you – did not have to bear up over the years to come. It was I who saw my Celebrían scarred and white as linen. It was I who watched my own sons turn into blood-crazed warriors, who raised generation after generation of Isildur's heirs to die for a war that should have ended so many centuries before."
"And you think you could have avoided all that?"
Elrond looked down at his hand where his finger was still discolored in testament to long years spent bearing Vilya. "I could have prevented most of it at least. If we had unmade the ring then, even if Isildur and I fell with it, it would have been Sauron's undoing. Some orcs may still have lived, but without their lord? And orcs are but elves at root. Sauron is one of the Ainur; we were outmatched, and it did not have to be so."
Gil-Galad shook his head gently. Placing his hand on Elrond's shoulder, he turned him so they both faced what was left of the Trees. They had stood proud for a time, a ghost of their former glory, but when Ungoliant had drained them of their light she had sapped their lifeblood as well. Laurelin's once-golden bark had turned a dull brown with age, and her limbs now stood half-snapped off and hanging at odd angles. Telperion had fared worse still; one of Laurelin's limbs had fallen against her so she was now little more than a stump.
"This is the cost of battle," Gil-Galad said. "Of violence. Acts that violate. We gut ourselves, not with a sword but with a decision to dominate. If you had stolen Isildur's choice, even if you had destroyed yourself in the act – no good would ever have come of it."
Elrond looked at him disbelievingly. "You did not see Celebrían after the orcs ravaged her. I would have paid any price to save her that."
"It would not have worked," Gil-Galad said. He ran his hand through his hair, a gesture Elrond had only seen Gil-Galad do a few times before – always when he was cornered and could see no other maneuver open to him. "Sometimes I wonder at the Valar's wisdom, at keeping the Straight Road open. I am glad to see you, make no mistake in that. But you carry so many scars! Galadriel does, too – I have seen it on many who come to Valinor from across the sea." Looking at Elrond, he offered the peredhil a half-smile. "You might understand things better if you spent some time in Mandos's halls."
Elrond plucked a blade of grass from the hillside and held it out before him, twisting it petulantly between his fingers. "Perhaps I am too dull to see my own idiocy."
"It is not wit you lack," Gil-galad assured him, "but experience." Elrond cocked an eyebrow at that, for both king and herald had seen entirely too much to claim ignorance's bliss any more. "Experience of a certain kind," Gil-galad corrected himself. "Trust me in this, Elrond. There are some things you simply cannot know. Perhaps, given time? But not quite yet."
Elrond nodded, but beyond that he could not think of anything else to say. They sat quietly like that, so close to the ruined trees. As the sun sank toward the horizon a soft rain came upon them, cool against the heat of the summer day.
Elrond wondered if the rain was not Ilúvatar Himself weeping at the state of His world. He had fancied rain might be a kind of tears, as a child. Or maybe it was just rain. In either case, Elrond thought he could sense the Trees' song cut short in the water falling all around them. A song cut short, to be sure, strangled even as it crescendoed, but a song worth hearing nonetheless.