So Cloaked and So Crowned
"Hold him down!"
"Ach, he bit me!"
"Foul little... here, give me the knife!"
It was still some distance to Ithilien on foot, but the journey did not daunt Gimli son of Glóin. He pulled the cloak and hood around himself more tightly and ignored the rasp of the cloth against his head. It was unfamiliar and it sounded loud in his ears.
Behind him lay the great glittering snake that was Anduin, and the mountains rose up beyond it, a cool blue in the early morning sunlight. Their snow-capped peaks were blushing rose, and Gimli could see the spires of Minas Tirith nestled against the great bulk of Mindolluin.
He could have gone there, to Minas Tirith. Aragorn would have helped him, no doubt. Arwen would have been solicitous and welcoming, and would have said no unkind word about his shame. It would have been a merry thing to see how tall their young lad was now, or to drink with Beregond and sing with the pipers that had proved such fine company in the taverns of the White City. They would have been kind and outraged on his behalf, and then it would have ceased to matter to them.
Gimli could not bear it.
He hoisted his pack upon his back a little higher, and kept marching over the green fields beyond Osgiliath. He would not look back again.
"Heavy brute, isn't he?"
Soft laughter, and then the knife twitched at his temple once more. Gimli roared.
He sat up sharply, his heart pounding and a dagger in his hand. The images left him only slowly, and Gimli blinked in the darkness, pulse echoing in his ears.
His small camp was as he had left it. The rabbit he had flushed from a copse still sat above the smouldering coals, and his axe lay untouched by his side. His legs were tangled in his cloak and sweat was running thick and clammy down his back.
"A dream," he said aloud. "It was but a dream."
The night did not answer.
Gimli dropped his dagger and carefully covered his face with his hands, wiping down the cooling, damp skin with his rough palms. His fingers rasped over his chin as they had not done since he was a stripling youth, and the urge to take his axe and destroy something was abruptly so unbearable that tears leapt to his eyes.
Ah, but the only victims here were trees, and Legolas would be sad. The moment passed, and Gimli sagged. His hands dropped into his lap, and he stared down at them for a long second.
A Dwarf's hands. Thick-fingered, rough-skinned, sensitive and nimble beyond their appearance.
He pulled his Galadhrim cloak around himself even more tightly, binding his head closely as though the extra layer could stop the nightmares.
"Look, he's but a peeled monkey when you unwrap him!"
Raucous laughter, and Gimli struggled with all his might. His mouth was open in a rictus of rage, and his eyes promised death.
"Upset, ain't he?"
"Hold him still, you bastards, I almost had his ear off!"
"Wouldn't make any difference to his looks, ugly beast. Ach, he bit me again! Damned..."
Gimli could not even protect his head as the rain of kicks began anew.
He crested a rise, and there below him stood the new settlement. A half-smile crossed his face for a moment, and then Gimli hoisted his pack and began to trudge through the shimmer of rain towards the graceful houses with their connecting walkways and arching roofs, surmounted by the tallest of the trees. In their stately branches were cradled half a dozen half-built flets.
Perhaps Gimli could be useful here, until such time as he had his dignity again.
The sentries would have spotted him some time ago, he knew. Even in the silvery drizzle that turned the world to mist before his eyes, there was no hiding from an Elf's sight. Gimli paused, and then he called, "I mean no harm. I would speak to Legolas Thranduilion."
The forest seemed even more silent than it had before he spoke, and Gimli sighed.
"Would it ease your hearts if I threw away my weapons?"
Still silence, and the soft hiss of the rain.
Gimli stifled the curse that flew to his tongue, and he sat down upon a fallen log covered with lichen and moss. He pressed his fingers into his eyes for a moment, and then he tugged his dagger and throwing axes from his belt and placed them on the soft turf before him. Then his great-axe, then his spinning axe... and finally, his bearded axe followed. He sat back, and waited.
Eventually a tall slim figure appeared from between the trees. The Elf moved without a word or a sound, and the long dark fall of their hair had turned glossy in the rain. "Welcome," she said with a bow. "Our apologies, but you have caught us by surprise. We thought you a wandering child, at first."
Gimli's hand flew to his hood, and his lips pressed together firmly to stop his rage spilling forth. "I am no child," he managed stiffly, keeping the growl from his voice with a great effort. "I am Gimli son of Glóin, and I would see my friend. If he is here."
Her eyes widened. "You... we did not recognise you."
Gimli froze, and then he ripped off his hood. "Aye, no doubt," he said, and he knew he could not disguise the bitterness in his tone. "Legolas, please. Please."
"Follow me, Lord Gimli," she said, her eyes still wide. Thankfully there was no other indication of her shock. Gimli could not have borne that.
He tugged his hood up before he replaced his weapons and followed her.
He kept one hand on the haft of his axe.
"Ha! Pale as a fish-belly! Perhaps we should give it a polish?"
The splat of spittle landing on Gimli's scalp made him bellow and scream with outrage, but his fury was only met with more laughter and derision. Soon all of his captors were spitting upon his head, and he could feel it running down the side of his face.
"You've nicked him. See, here an' here," said one.
A snort. "You try doin' the job when he's hollering and kicking and biting fit to bring down the Mountain, then! Anyway, what d'you care if he bleeds?"
"I don't!" There was a beat. "They'll scar."
"I hope they turn bad and fester, the traitor," came the contemptuous reply, and another solid kick was aimed at Gimli's ribs. He coughed and spat blood, and cursed them all to the nethermost pits of Moria, but again, only laughter was his reply.
Elves were incapable of building in a straight line, Gimli decided, as he marched along behind the dark-haired Elf. Every path wound around the boles of trees or clung close to the banks of the stream. It all looked the same behind the thin silver mirror of the rain, and he was beginning to think himself lost.
Then the trees opened up and he was standing amidst the settlement he had spied from the higher ridge. The gorge they had been following opened out into a wide shallow cup of green grass, and the fluted buildings of Elvenkind ringed an open space in the centre. Vines were strung between tree and house alike, buried in blossoms that turned their faces up to the rain. In the green sward there stood some of the graceful statues that the Elves favoured, but also there was a pool ringed in white stone and seats where a traveller or worker might rest themselves after a journey or a day of toil.
"You have worked hard," Gimli murmured, pushing his hood back the slightest amount to uncover his eyes. "This was barren and bare, when I was last here."
The Elf-woman glanced down at him. "We are calling it Calenimrath," she said with a faint smile on her face – once, Gimli could not have identified it as a smile. Now he knew better. "Come. The Prince should be in the groves to the East."
Gimli felt eyes upon him as he followed her through the sward of trees and flowers and delicate, impractical (they would not last even a century!) houses. "Groves?" he asked.
"There are fruit-trees here," she answered. "They have been long-abused and their voices cry out in pain and suffering, but they will soon become strong again. We will listen."
"Hmmmph," Gimli said, and restrained the urge to roll his eyes in disbelief. "If you say so, Lady."
The path wound and twisted amongst the trees and the houses, and the weight of the stares upon his back grew heavy and itchy. The tension mounted in Gimli's breast, and he almost wished he could turn back around. Aragorn and Minas Tirith would be kind.
Yes, they would be very kind. And Gimli would hate every second.
The path entered a glade where stunted and twisted limbs curled around the trunks of trees that looked to shiver in the rain, not to reach out to it. Gimli frowned, and then he caught a fragment of a familiar, lilting voice.
"Legolas!" he said, unable to stop himself, and he took three steps forward without even realising he had done so. The Elf was here, so close!
The voice paused, and then a blond head emerged from the canopy, hair hanging down in a long, dripping golden sheet. "No, it cannot..." he said in amazement, and then, lithe as a squirrel, Legolas was leaping from the tree to rush towards the Dwarf, a glad smile on his face.
He stopped short only feet from Gimli, and a new and terrible light entered his eyes.
Gimli's heart leapt into his mouth, and he bowed his head. Of course, the sharp-eyed Elf had seen his shame even beneath the cloak of Lothlórien.
"Gimli," Legolas breathed, and he fell to his knees in the soaked grass before the Dwarf. His hand raised, slowly, tentatively. Fingers touched the smooth cloth, and Gimli felt rather than heard Legolas' soft intake of breath. Then there was the rasp of stubble against the smooth Elven palm and the thick bowstring calluses as Legolas slipped his hand beneath the hood and gently pushed it back. Gimli stood and did not move, all his limbs frozen in shame and sorrow.
Silence, but for the soft silvery hiss of water upon the leaves. Then Legolas said miserably, "Oh, Gimli..."
Gimli kept his head bowed, and though his heart yet beat in his mouth, it tasted like ashes and blood and vinegar. The rain beat down upon his poor shaved scalp, and dripped from his stubbled chin.
"Hullo there, laddie," he said around his acid mouthful. "Long time no see, eh?"
"You will regret this," he said hoarsely as he was dragged out into the snow. His pack and his axes were thrown out to land beside him, uncaring. They did not consider giving them back of any danger, as though a warrior of the Line of Durin were no threat at all.
"I really don't think we will," came the amused reply. "Tell who you want. Go on, show your face to the world like this!"
Gimli curled up in the snow, his hands wrapping around his head, his knees drawn up to his chest. Never had he been so helpless or so humiliated. His axe was right there, but he could not summon himself from the mire of his anguish and disgrace to grasp it.
"Traitor to your family, un-Dwarf, Elven bum-boy," continued his tormentor lightly. "And they call a thing like you a hero."
The door slammed, and Gimli was left in the snow. His aching chest felt as though a massive weight were crushing it, crushing it slowly.
His tears froze.
"Who did this to you?" Legolas asked in a whisper filled with horror. "Who?"
Gimli could not answer, and he just shook his head roughly.
Legolas swallowed hard, and then he pulled the Dwarf into an embrace, long limbs curling around him and holding tightly. Gimli hesitated for a moment, and then he caught the Elf up in turn, holding on with all his strength and burying his shorn face in the narrow elegant shoulder. He could feel the tautness of muscles built by the bow underneath his hands. They trembled. The Elf shook with fury.
No, he had not wanted kindness.
"I will kill them," Legolas breathed against the stubble that covered his head, and Gimli's jaw tensed against the storm of fury and distress that closed his throat and made his eyes swarm with sudden tears. "Tell me who it was, and I will hunt them down, every last one. Gimli, Gimli-nîn, speak to me!"
Gimli could only clutch at the Elf and breathe hard through his nose.
"Was it Elves?" Legolas demanded, and his hands roamed over the poor shorn skull as though memorising every bump and scar. "Was it Men? Gimli, did they hurt you in other ways? Please..."
Gimli let out a hot, harsh sound against the fine embroidery that covered Legolas' tunic. "As though this were not enough," he muttered bitterly.
Legolas cursed, and then he gasped loudly when his roving fingers caught against the telltale signs of a wound that had inflamed long before it healed. "Tell me who it was that violated you so cruelly. Who took your hair and beard, Gimli? Whose life ends at the point of my knives?"
Oh, that would make for a pretty diplomatic puzzle, Gimli thought, and then he shuddered as Legolas' daring hands stroked at his bald cheeks. "Don't," he growled, and he grasped Legolas' wrists hard enough to bruise. "Don't!"
"Gimli!" Legolas pulled back a little to glare into his eyes. "Tell me!"
"Dwarves," he choked, and he turned his gaze away. "It was Dwarves."
Gimli glared at him in return, and squeezed at the fine-boned wrists still clasped in his hands. "They protest our friendship. They will not accept the peace between the wood and the Mountain. To them I am little better than a traitor, and the ancient punishments are too good for me."
There was a fire in Legolas' eyes that matched his own. "They will find death too good for them," Legolas said, and he looked so like Thranduil for a moment that Gimli marvelled at it.
Still. Gimli shook his head again. "Nay, lad."
"They have..." Legolas wrenched his hands away and stood in one flowing movement. "How can you say that? Gimli..."
"You cannot possibly know what a Dwarf's hair and beard means, so do not pretend you know the full shame of what they have done," Gimli said harshly.
"I may not know what they mean to a Dwarf, but I know what they meant to you," snarled Legolas. "I know you, Gimli, Glóin's son. And I would see these cowards stuck with every one of my arrows before this day is through."
"You'd have to run even faster than we have ever done, it's quite a journey," Gimli said, and sighed. "It happened upon my way back from Aglarond, Legolas. I was beset in my sleep and dragged from my camp. It was obviously well-planned. No doubt they had waited for such an opportunity: I am rarely alone these days."
"Where and who," Legolas said flatly. "You will tell me."
"No point," Gimli said, and he gave a half-shrug. "I already killed them."
It was freezing. His breath hung in the air as though suspended in clouded glass, and Gimli rubbed his hands together briskly even as his chest heaved with unspent sobs. He looked out at the still conifers, their boughs stooping under the weight of the snow, trying to get his bearings. His camp would be somewhere towards the Gladden River, and to his knowledge his assailants had not picked up his pack nor his bedroll. He could move on.
Move on where?
The nearest place to find help was Lothlórien, but Gimli dismissed it immediately. He could not face the Lady like this. And that went double for other Dwarves. So. Aglarond was out of the question as well. He could not hope to remain Lord in the Glittering Caves when he had been so obviously despoiled. Minas Tirith called, far to the south – but Gimli found he could not bear the idea of solicitous hands and kindly words.
Gingerly one of his hands crept up the thick, cold column of his neck to where his hair had once flowed like a river of bright blood.
Another muffled, rumbling moan escaped him.
His fingers would not be halted, however, and they traced up and over the crown of his head, questing and exploring. It was not evenly cut. He could grasp tufts between thumb and forefinger in places, and at the nape of his neck there was a soft downy patch that had once bordered his hairline. The knife had cut away his hair so closely to the skin in places that he could not even feel a hint of stubble. He was not surprised when his fingers came away smeared in red.
Then he steeled himself and brought his hands to his chin.
Nothing. Nothing at all. Barely even a bristle left.
The thick, luxurious waves of hair, coarse and wiry, were gone. He had never been so bare in his entire life. His father was fond of recounting that he had been born with a curling patch below each ear, and a little wisp below his mouth. It was the pride of his house that his family had all grown such handsome beards: his father, his uncle, his mother, his grandfather. Now he was shorn like a sheep, rendered as hairless as a fish! His beads were gone. His braids! His dignity and honour – his virtue – it was all gone. He had not given his beard of his own volition to show honour and respect to those who deserved it. It had been taken.
Taken from him by small-minded ruffians, by a pack of renegade filth. Gimli could feel his cheeks crumpling beneath his hands as his face contorted in a silent scream of rage and misery.
His shame was near-total, but even in his ruin a fire was beginning to blaze behind his eyes and in his belly.
They should not have left him his axes.
Legolas was breathing hard. "You killed them."
"Aye." Gimli did not flinch nor look away. "I did. And I make no apology for it."
Legolas held his eyes, his lips curling back to show his straight white teeth. "Good." There was a savage satisfaction in the way he spoke and in the flash of those strange Elven eyes. Gimli's own rage was somehow cooled by it. "Did you know them?"
"No." Gimli smiled grimly to himself. "But by the end, they were not so ignorant of me."
There was a long moment that filled with the soft susurration of the rain and the silent understanding of violence that could only be taught through war.
Then Gimli looked down at his feet, and then he lifted his face to meet Legolas' eyes once more. "I cannot face my people like this," he said simply.
Legolas frowned. "But you can come here? Gimli, how long have you been travelling since this happened?"
"Month or so," Gimli said, and shrugged.
Legolas swore again in his liquid tongue, before he took Gimli's shoulder, very gently. His long fingers trembled as though he were restraining himself from gripping far harder. "Come with me," he said. "You must bathe and eat, and I will tend to your wounds."
Gimli let out a breath he didn't even know he'd been holding. "Thank you," he said, and Legolas' hand tightened for a moment, before he relaxed it.
"You do not ever need to thank me, Gimli-nîn," he said, and wrapped his arm about Gimli's shoulders to lead him through the tangled and winding paths.
It was the simplest thing to shut the doors of the hut and bar them. Gimli was almost ashamed of himself.
But whether they thought it or no, Gimli was still a Dwarf. Crafts of all kinds came easily to his hands. Gimli fouled the locks so that the doors could not be opened and it was the work of a moment to block them from the outside with the great rounded tree-boles that lay scattered around the isolated hut. Then he took up his dagger and axe and clambered in through the window. The moonless night was all to his advantage: his eyes were adjusted to the night, and they had looked upon lanterns and candles and fires roaring in the hearth as they celebrated, lifting their tankards to cheer his degradation.
Now they snored, all seventeen, in the main room of the hut.
Now they would learn that a Dwarf of Durin's Line was not so easily broken.
Gimli paused upon the ledge of the window, moving more silently than any Dwarf before or since and thanking all the climbing skills he had learned from Aragorn, Boromir and the Elf. Then he stepped forward into the musty, sweaty fug of the room, his eyes darting here and there.
His foot nearly slipped on something soft and silky, and he glanced down, only to freeze.
It was his hair. Or, to be more technical, it was a pile of braids and tangles that had once been his. It was bunched together, and a snoring Dwarf nearby had obviously claimed it for his own. Gimli let his eyes rove over the lax face, and recognised the one who had held the knife.
Legolas did not speak as Gimli stripped without ceremony. He did not say a word at the new scars that littered Gimli's head and cheeks, or the now-green and yellowed bruising that covered his entire back and some of his side. The Elf only gestured to where the river had been hemmed in by white stones and tree-roots to create a shallow, gurgling little pool. The merry sounds of water sang in Gimli's ears.
Once – before - Gimli would have turned away. He would have blustered about the Elf's gaze that lingered on his skin and insisted upon shedding his clothes in haste and seclusion. He was a Dwarf of Durin's line, and it was his way to be private and secretive. Now? Now, he had no reason to hide. His dignity had been stolen from him: what need had Gimli of privacy?
"Are your ribs broken, Gimli?" said Legolas, startling him out of his dark thoughts.
"Nay," Gimli said, and would not meet his eyes. "They are but bruised."
Once, he would have boasted of the strength of Dwarven bone. The silence lingered, as though both of them waited for him to say the words. They would not come.
"The water is cool and clean," Legolas said eventually. "The pool will not be too deep for you."
Gimli nodded, not looking up. Then he waded carefully amongst the tree roots to find that steps had been cut into the white rock. He sat down heavily upon the second and sighed deeply as the water began to swirl around his chest.
Legolas took up a long dipper and began to ladle the bright clear river-water over his arms and shoulders, kneeling upon the bank behind him. Gimli could not repress the sudden shudder when the water trickled over the bumps and planes of his denuded head.
"I wish you had not killed them," Legolas said softly.
"They knew what retribution would mean if I was ever able to deal it to them," Gimli said, his voice scratchy and harsh. "They took my hair and beard knowing it. No Dwarf would disagree. Do not tell me that the warrior I knew has grown soft and sentimental in his retirement."
"You misunderstand," Legolas murmured, and Gimli's eyes snapped shut as the warm, delicate trace of fingertips trailed behind his ear. "I do not begrudge you your vengeance, Gimli –nîn. Yet you have robbed me of the opportunity to rid the world of them myself."
Gimli simply pressed his eyelids together as tightly as he could. There was a terrible anger in the Elf's voice, and an equally terrible affection in his hands.
"You're still shamed forever..." croaked one, and Gimli raised his blades and cut his words along with his throat.
"Shamed, aye," he growled, and turned to where the last was coughing up thick chunks of bloody sputum. It was the one who had spat upon his head and smeared it in his wounds. "I am. But not so much as you will be."
The Dwarf's eyes widened and his mouth worked uselessly.
"I will not burn this place," Gimli said to him in a low, tight voice, and he whirled his axe in a lazy circle to spatter the pale and terrified face with his comrade's blood. "There will be no hero's pyre, and no stone will accept your bones. You will have no honourable death. I will take the hair and beard of every Dwarf here, soak them in your blood, and leave the doors open behind me. I will run, and run, and run. Every half-mile I will let fall some of your hair, leaving a trail back to this place. Every beast in these parts will be able to find and despoil you."
Gimli crouched down before the mortally-wounded Dwarf. "I do not know you, and I will not remember you," he snarled. "You are a Dwarf with no name, no great deeds to his axe, no family. May Mahal reject you. You are forgotten."
The Dwarf struggled with his useless legs, and he cried out around his mouthful of gore as Gimli stood and whirled on his heel. He smashed the windows open with his axe as he moved through the hut, groaning and lifeless bodies surrounding him upon all sides.
Then he kicked open the doors he had so carefully locked, and strode out into the snow-flecked night.
"Don't," Gimli said shortly, and his hand rose to grip tightly around Legolas' fingers. "Do not touch it."
Legolas paused, and then his warm fingers pressed against Gimli's ravaged scalp again, as though in defiance. "And why not?" he said, and he sounded for all the world as he had in the old days, challenging Gimli to this competition or that. "Why should I not touch your head, Gimli? You are my friend. My dearest, most beloved friend. There is nothing about you I find shameful."
Gimli snorted loudly, and wiped down his face with a hand. The rasp of stubble sounded louder, more metallic, when it was wet. "You are being kind. Stop it, I am in no mood for it."
"There is no kindness in what I do now," Legolas muttered as though to himself.
Gimli jerked his head away from the searching hand with its warm smooth palm. "Stop it, I say!"
"No," Legolas snapped back, and then he was wading into the pool fully clothed to take Gimli's shoulders. "I will not. Gimli, Glóin's son, you are more than a head of braids and a fine beard. Do not let them steal more than hair from you!"
"You do not..." Gimli began hotly, but Legolas interrupted him.
"Understand? No, perhaps not. But as I said, I know you. And you do not pull away from me as you would from a Dwarf who knows these things deep in their bones. You pull away because you cannot bear to see loathing in my eyes."
Gimli's breath caught. "Do not speak such lies."
"I speak no falsehood. I know you." Then there was a long slender hand upon his chin (his chin! Audacious creature!) and his face was wrenched up – up to meet the eyes of a furious Elf. "Look at me. Do you see what you fear?"
Gimli's hand wrapped around Legolas' wrist once more. "Take your hand from my face or I shall break it," he growled.
"No," Legolas said, and his fingers tightened over the bristled skin, pinching the softer pad at his chin between thumb and forefinger. "I will not."
Gimli's huge fist clenched around fine, slender Elvish bone, and his heart battered and pounded at his chest. Legolas' breath whistled through his bared teeth, and his eyes – those strange, gemlike Elvish eyes – were alive with fury and sorrow.
There was no disgust.
Gimli's hand dropped back into the water, useless and open, and then his head fell to his chest. "I am sorry," he managed, and then the tears finally came. First in a trickle, then a storm.
Legolas, dripping wet and still fully-clothed, gathered him close. Long arms wound about his naked body, and the Elf sang his strange and alien songs and kissed his abused and hideous head even as Gimli wept against the sound of a merrily babbling brook.
Far behind him, there was the sound of a wolf howling its pack to the hunt.
Gimli smiled grimly as he ran, and let another hank of hair fall to the snow.
"I do not know how you can bear to even touch me."
Gimli's words felt hollow as they left him. His whole body ached, as though he were a dishcloth that had been wrung out. Legolas laughed softly.
"You? Gimli, you are magnificent. You have always been magnificent. Your glory does not diminish because you have no beard or braids to adorn it. Touching you is never and will never be a hardship."
Gimli winced, and then he let out a long, slow breath that seemed to carry his will to move with it. "It is..." he struggled with the way to explain it. "Ach, maybe you prefer me this way, you poor beardless thing. Though I had heard that Elves find a head of fine hair much to their liking..."
"Oh, you simpleton of a Dwarf!" Legolas said softly. "I am not my people - I am Legolas. And Legolas finds you beautiful, whether you are knee-deep in mud and blood, or clad in finest brocades of Durin blue. This great and clever and deadly hand is beautiful. These feet. These dark, deep eyes. This fine round head. These arms that protect and destroy. These large ears. And yes, this strong chin – it is something of a relief to know you have one! – and this proud jaw."
Gimli was left frozen and transfixed as Legolas smoothed his hand over his chin once more. This time, he could not move. This time, he let the Elf do as he would.
"Yes; beautiful," Legolas murmured, and he left another burning kiss against Gimli's cheek. "Look at this, a secret marvel – the skin is as tender as a newborn's, hidden away so long behind its fiery and furry shield. I would not have guessed you to have such a powerful neck, my Gimli. And I do not think I have ever seen your mouth so clearly before."
Gimli could not help it: his mouth was dry as dust. He wetted his lips with his tongue even as Legolas watched, and the Elf let out a soft puff of air.
"Bruised, but not beaten, still standing as strong and proud as the mountain itself," Legolas said, and he smiled. His gaze never lifted from Gimli's mouth. "Here you are, naked against me in my arms, and you believe that hair of all things is what I see."
"Well?" Gimli said hoarsely. "Prove otherwise, you daft Elf."
When Legolas' mouth closed over his, Gimli clutched at him so tightly that he tore the light, soaked grey tunic under his fingers.
There was no moon and it was utterly dark. Gimli ran on and on, until his legs would carry him no further. South he went, towards the sea.
The Gladden River rose before him eventually, and after making the careful crossing at the fords he stopped to wash and fill his waterskins. He averted his gaze from his reflection, but he had still caught it in the corner of his eye.
Great inflamed cuts ran over the surface of his head which, exposed, looked far rounder and more bulbous than it had. Dwarven skulls were thick and heavy, not elegant. His ears looked ludicrous without his hair to balance them. His jaw was far squarer and thicker than he had imagined, having not seen it since his childhood. It had been softer then, less jutting and more rounded. It was sharp-edged and chiselled now: solid, as though made of stone and not bone. The skin upon his chin was a pitch lighter than that upon his forehead. There were ugly little tufts of red hair sticking from him every which way, some clinging to the great long welts left upon scalp and cheeks. The open sores were shiny as oilslick.
Gimli pulled his Lothlórien cloak over his head and swallowed. He was no sight for gentle folk.
He was no sight for any who had eyes.
The phrase nagged at him. Without any conscious decision made, he turned his feet slightly to the south-east, and Ithilien.
"How long," Gimli said, and he cupped that fine-boned face in his hands carefully. It was so well-made, so perfectly crafted, he half-feared he would break it. "How long have you wished to do that?"
"Too long," Legolas said breathlessly, and he surged forward, all wet hair and sodden clothes and long, long limbs, to press his lips against Gimli's once more. His lean body moulded itself to Gimli's, cloth rasping against his belly and along the twitching cock upon his thigh. "Far too long. Be quiet, meddlesome Dwarf, I am kissing you."
"It is well you have told me, else I would not have noticed," Gimli said, heart smashing against his sore ribs, and there was hot breath at his ear that ghosted over the naked planes of his head and oh, how he shivered.
"A challenge, then?" Legolas said against his skin, and his arms closed around him even more tightly. "I fear you will lose this one, my Gimli."
As you have lost your honour, son of Glóin? Is this desire, or pity?
Wolves howled in his mind, and Gimli gritted his teeth.
"I know you," Legolas said again, and he sighed it against Gimli's poor shorn head, against the twisted scars that had healed wrongly and were still red and angry and proud against the pale, pale skin. "I know you."
"Aye, you know me," Gimli said, and he slammed the door shut upon the grey hut that burned in his mind, and he fouled the locks, and he threw away his shame and his hurt and his beard and braids and the memory of his face in the river, if only for a minute. If only while he could stay here, suspended, pressed full-length against the slim body of an Elf, as naked as the day he was born. More naked, in fact.
"I think you'll find, you mad Elf," he said, and he could throw it all away while Legolas looked at him like that and held him as though he were precious, he could forget, "that when it comes to any challenge hereafter, I have already won."
It takes nearly a year, and then Gimli's hair is finally long enough for nimble Elvish fingers to twine it into hundreds upon hundreds of slender, fiery plaits. They sweep his jawline and brush at the edge of his collar, and sometimes they tickle. His beard he braids into twin forks, and he remembers when he could not contain it in the grip of one hand. His new beads are silver and cedar, and they shine.
The cold grey hut lies somewhere in the Gladden Fields, forgotten.