A Mud Summer Night's Dream, Chapter 4

The next day found the hunters trekking across the mud plains once again in search of the Orcs. The morning had dawned very dark and cloudy and they had not traveled more than an hour's walk from the oasis when it began to rain once more. It came down as a steady shower, and in no time the three men were bedraggled, covered with mud from the now-accustomed spills onto the slippery ground, and soaked to the bone. Boromir walked beside them, desiring to help in any way he could, and it quickly became noted that the miserable weather did not seem to affect him at all. No matter how the water pelted the others and turned their clothes to clinging sheets, Boromir remained perfectly dry and comfortable. His boots seemed to trod the earth as solidly as those of his comrades, yet they made no mark on the sloppy mud, and remained utterly clean. "A result of being a spirit, perhaps," he said with a shrug, and tried not to be too smug about it. The land before them had lost its earlier flat characteristic, becoming more uneven, if no less muddy. Here and there on the plains, deep depressions appeared on the mud's surface, indicating places where the rain-sodden earth had collapsed. Small groups of rocks also began to appear, huddled in solitary formations along their path. Each man eyed them with caution, knowing how easily they could conceal an Orc. Before them in the distance loomed the southernmost portion of the Ephel Duath mountains, their peaks hidden in misty, rain-heavy clouds. The light was gray and uncertain, lending a bleak tone to the uninviting landscape made all the more unnerving by the occasional rumble of far-away thunder. During the better part of the morning's walk, Boromir and Faramir had taken the lead, conversing between each other in a private manner inaudible to their regal comrades. It appeared to be a highly earnest exchange, and at one point Aragorn, somewhat bored with looking at eternal fields of brown muck, clumps of rock, and mist-covered mountains, drew forward a bit just to see if he could hear what they were saying. Boromir was speaking to his brother in a low, firm tone. Neither of them noticed Aragorn. "...and try nibbling on her elbow," Aragorn heard him say. "All of the ladies I did that with *loved* it." Faramir sighed. "I tried that once, but I hit a nerve by mistake and she wound up accidentally giving me a black eye." The older brother pondered this. "Well, what about kissing her on the throat, just under the ear? Have you tried that?" The King blushed a bit, and quickly dropped back to fall in step beside Eomer. The King of Rohan had completely given up on keeping clean and was without his shirt, the water rolling down his massive chest in multitudinous rivulets. "We must be nearing the Orcs' hiding place," mused Eomer as they walked. "They could not strike out and then disappear so quickly if their camp were very far inside this land." Aragorn nodded, shaking his head to clear the water from his eyes. "We could try going into the rocky area," he suggested, eying the mountainous foothills that lay in the distance to either side of them. "They may be concealing themselves in a cave somewhere. The rocks look sharp and treacherous, though..." "I care not," coughed Eomer as he plodded on, "so long as we may get out of this cursed mud." The other man laughed a little. "Come now, Eomer King, where is your warrior's spirit?" he chided. "Has it been that long since you endured such conditions as these very day, in service to your land?" Eomer scowled and wiped his face. "It does not rain in Rohan this much in an entire YEAR!" "Nor does it in the North," observed Aragorn, "but still I welcome it, for it tells me that I am no longer imprisoned by kingly duties and ancient walls of stone. A man is not himself until he has the chance to walk the wide earth and feel the-ERU'S BLOOD!" Eomer stopped, shocked, as Aragorn had without any warning suddenly dropped completely out of sight beside him, leaving only his loudly sworn oath hanging in the moist air. Gasping, the Rohan king jumped away as well as he could on the uncertain ground, turning to see where Aragorn had gone. A little ways ahead of him, Boromir and Faramir had heard the cry, and were running quickly back through the ooze to investigate. Where Aragorn had been walking not a moment before, the rain-swollen earth had simply fallen away; what was once flat ground was now marked by a shallow but very wide sinkhole that was rapidly growing wider. In the center of it sat Aragorn, sprawled in a foot of mud and water and thoroughly covered in brown muck. "My liege, are you-oop!" Faramir had splashed his way to the edge of the hole, but was compelled to leap awkwardly back as the edge of the opening fell away, one of the many large sodden clumps of ground that continued to slide into the hole amidst a chorus of bloops and splorps. "Mind yourself, little brother," cautioned Boromir, pulling Faramir back from the abyss. "That's a royal mud hole there, ennobled by Aragorn's regal presence. I'm sure the Steward's mud hole is around here somewhere, smaller but no less grand." Having said this, he strode forward without a care and stood at the edge, watching as Aragorn slowly climbed to his feet, great glopping streams of mud dripping from his hair and arms. "Do you require assistance, Aragorn? This foul stuff seems content enough to leave me alone, if you need anyone to tumble in there after you." Gondor's King had regained his footing; the hole, while wide, was only three feet deep. A foot of thick brown water had collected in the bottom and was soaking Aragorn's boots. "Thank you, my fortunate friend, but I am uninjured," he replied, shaking the mud from his arms. "It seems this land has other unpleasant features beside the rain and mud." "The ability to swallow men whole? Aye, I'd call that unpleasant, sure enough," muttered Eomer, as Boromir helped Aragorn out of the hole. It took some doing, for the sides were very soft and soaked with rain, making it difficult to gain a solid purchase. He smiled as Aragorn finally rejoined them. "I believe you were extolling the virtues of walking the wide earth?" Aragorn sniffed loudly and wiped his face with one hand. "Perhaps I should say the wide, *dry* earth," he said, gazing at the nearby foothills. "Let us walk a while along the base of the mountains, gentlemen. It may be faster, and it will certainly be more firm." This met with universal assent, with one exception. "Bah! You've each gone soft from all that court living," Boromir said good-naturedly as they made their way to the low-lying rocks. "All you care about is comfort now. You're turning into boring old men." Faramir smirked. "If that's true, then you were a boring old man when you were twelve years old," he said. "Or maybe you've forgotten the trip we took to Dol Amroth to visit Uncle Imrahil, and you didn't want to go on the beach because you hated the way the sand kept getting down your bathing garment?" His brother glared at him. "Sand *chafes*," he said sharply, and elaborated no further. The foothills of the Ephel Duath were composed mostly of ancient black rock, whose path ran sometimes smooth, sometimes tossed into piles of large, sharp boulders. The walking here was much faster and easier than on the mud, but the rain made the surface still rather slick, and there were times when getting past the jumbles of rocks was no easy feat. At times, the only choice was to climb over, a task hampered by the dousing rain and the fact that the men were still covered with mud. Boromir, however, seemed able to traverse over the rocks as easily as a mountain goat, without so much as a missed step. "You seem to have gained quite a new grace, brother!" noted Faramir as he hauled himself over a large boulder. The spirit shrugged as he helped Faramir over the obstacle. "Another aspect of passing from the imperfect realm of Men, I would guess," he mused, extending a hand to Eomer who was close behind. "I confess I take no notice of it, it is as a second nature to me. The talent seems of little use, unless I desire to spend eternity mountain-climbing." "Do not dismiss such a fate, son of Gondor!" said Eomer as he waved off Boromir's help and deftly climbed down from the rock on his own. "I passed my youth among the peaks of Rohan. Had I the chance to spend the undying years climbing mountains, I would not forsake it." He paused, then glanced at the bleak, chaotically massed landscape around him. "As long as they did not look like *these* mountains." Faramir had moved some ways ahead of the group, and now was running back as quickly and quietly through the rain-puddled rocks as he could. Aragorn noticed the excited look on his face, and gave him a mute expression of questioning. Motioning them all to be silent, Faramir gestured for them to follow, as noiselessly as possible. They moved some fifty feet up the path, along a narrow clear pass bordered on one side by more large boulders and on the other by the sloping face of the mountain. At the end of the path was a high wall of boulders, some sharp, others large and rounded. As they drew closer, they discerned a sound rising above the incessant noise of the driving rain. The noise became more distinctive with each step, and resolved into two quarrelsome Orc voices, coming from behind the boulder wall. The hunters exchanged cautious looks, then, as slowly and carefully as they could, eased their gaze around the rocks in order to see what was happening beyond their sight. The pile of rocks formed a ring around a large clear open pit, a shallow depression that sloped some three feet into the hard ground. In the middle of the pit, oblivious to their audience, sat two large and ugly Orcs, with a large pile of stolen swords, helmets, goblets, jewelry, small unopened chests, and canvas bags of coins between them. Nearby lay two large, empty canvas sacks with long sling handles. One of the Orcs, a fat creature with a round nose and very long black hair, was holding aloft an elaborate Rohan helmet, shaking it at his comrade. The other Orc was smaller, with a sharp face, red eyes, and white hair falling in straggling waves to his wide shoulders. "You can just stop yer noise right now!" the fat Orc was bellowing. "I took this helmet, an' I'm keepin' it!" "Yer a right filthy liar!" the other Orc spat back, enraged. "Was I got that fancy bit o' gear, right off that horse-lovin' maggot's head!" Eomer growled, although very quietly. "And if yer gettin' that helmet," the skinny Orc continued, digging his clawed hand into the pile of booty and pulling something out with many clankings and rattles, "then I'm gettin' *this*!" He was holding a large, beautiful dagger with a highly bejeweled crossguard, its blade finely etched with detailed decoration. The fat Orc sat back, outraged. "Yer can't 'ave that!" he roared. "That's the sharpest sword of the lot!" "Well, that ain't what I says," was the gleeful reply. "You've been givin' yerself all the best things from this pile, an' now I'm claimin' wot's mine by right. You want this dagger, come an' take it!" The other Orc jumped to his feet with a roar, drew his sword, and leapt at his companion. The fight was short, brutal, and vicious, and ended with the larger Orc standing victorious over his comrade, who was now missing his head. "Ha! Greedy little bugger," the fat Orc grunted as he sheathed his sword and proceeded to shovel the pile of goods into the canvas bags. The four men watched intently, glancing at each other from time to time with one thought in mind: a hope that the Orc might lead them to where the rest of the raiding party was hidden. The Orc had finished filling one sack and had slung it over his corpulent body; the canvas bag was bulging and looked to be quite heavy. He had almost completed filling the other sack when suddenly he stopped and looked up. The four men heard a very audible, loud *sniff*, followed by two more. Aragorn softly murmured a curse in Elvish. The Orc stood, drew his sword and looked around. "I know yer watchin' me," he said loudly, casting his yellow eyes all around. "Can smell that man-stink even in this rotten rain. Show yourself, else I'll be comin' after you." Squaring his shoulders and looking at his companions, Aragorn slowly stood. Even covered with mud, his long dark hair straggling to his shoulders and dripping wet, he still appeared very imposing. The Orc looked him over and grinned. "Ah," he said. "I was wonderin' what I'd do for supper." A moment later, Eomer, Faramir and Boromir rose to the feet as well, all brandishing their swords and looking quite threatening. In the semi-gloom, Boromir's otherworldly green glow was highly visible. The Orc's eyes widened a little as they traveled from warrior to warrior. he stood still for a moment, apparently weighing the odds, then quickly stooped down, grabbed the remaining canvas bag full of loot, turned, and scrambled over the rocks in the opposite direction. Without hesitation, Aragorn and the others leapt forward and gave chase. Burdened by the heavy sacks of stolen goods, the Orc still managed to make his way quickly enough across the rain-swept rocks to stay a few steps ahead of his pursuers. Aragorn was close on his heels, with the others just behind, clambering over and dodging around the slick black boulders with remarkable agility. Swiftly they plunged down the hillside, the rocks gradually becoming smaller, the ground more level, until suddenly Eomer yelled out something in Rohirric that sounded very nasty indeed. The Orc had ran off the foothills and onto the mud plains. "And just when that foulness had almost washed off!" Faramir exclaimed as he cleared a low rock. "Look at it this way," offered Boromir as he ran beside his brother, "you may get dirty now, but the sooner we catch that Orc, the sooner we find out where the others are, and the sooner we can finish this business and you can all be clean and dry again!" "That's enough for me," said Eomer with passion, and he launched himself onto the sodden flats alongside his comrades. The rain was falling in sheets now, the sky a dull, dark gray; at times the Orc disappeared against the endless flat expanse of mud. It was at the same disadvantage as the men, more so because of his heavy load, and fell as often as they did, but with the astounding strength of his kind, he managed to rise time and again to continue his flight. The men dashed after him as quickly as conditions would allow; only Boromir escaped the fate of taking headlong spills onto the drenched ground. Due to the speed with which they traveled, every tumble meant a slide of several feet, during which a good quantity of mud was plowed up and over the hapless victim. Yet such was their determination that each man rose to his feet as if his filthy condition were of no notice to him, and he would begin running again as if nothing had happened. Through the drenching rain gradually emerged the dim outline of tall, distant mountains before them, and from the Orc's path it was plain that they were his destination. But the Orc's steps had finally begun to falter; his load, and the race, were wearing on him at last. Seeing his weakness, the warriors renewed their efforts, gaining several feet on him with Eomer in the lead. "We shall soon end this," he swore as he dashed ahead; several times he slipped but did not fall, so great was his desire to overtake his prey. The Orc was not even looking behind himself any longer, eager only to reach the shelter of the faraway mountains. His legs were dragging now, but he seemed loath to rid himself of the two heavy bags filled with armor, swords, and loot. Some two hundred feet from the base of the mountain, Eomer triumphantly overtook the Orc, reaching one dripping, mud-encrusted arm out to seize the creature by the collar of his roughly woven garment. "Ha!" cried Eomer. "Arrrgh!" howled the Orc. *Rrrrrrrrumble*! went the earth beneath their feet, and suddenly Eomer and the Orc both plunged out of sight amidst a tremendous roaring noise that filled the air louder than thunder. A huge hole had suddenly appeared, much larger than the one that had previously tried to swallow Aragorn. As Faramir, Boromir, and the King of Gondor halted and hurriedly backed up, the hole grew quickly, foot after foot of earth collapsing beneath the torrential rain. A great splashing arose as rivers of mud poured into the opening, tearing the walls away and widening it even more. The three men stumbled backwards and fell, pulling desperately away to avoid being swallowed by the crater. As quickly as it had started, the collapsing stopped, the hole having satiated its appetite for mud and earth. At that moment, each hunter leapt to his feet and ran to the brim, peering urgently inside, each man calling Eomer's name. The hole had fallen to a depth of almost twenty feet, the sides sloping gradually down in series of short, crumbling steps, some fifty feet in total width; chunks of earth and streams of mud continued to pour into the hole even after its growth had ceased. The bottom of the opening was entirely filled with thick mud and water, to almost half its depth. Eomer and the Orc were nowhere to be seen. The three men stared horrified for an instant, then Faramir and Aragorn hastily dropped their swords and began shedding as much gear as possible. Before either of them got very far, Boromir pushed past them both and plunged headlong into the pit, disappearing beneath the watery mud with a very solid-sounding splash. "Must be very handy not to have to breathe," noted Faramir as he and Aragorn dropped the last of their gear. As the rain poured down around them, they ventured into the hole, their way slowed by the slippery, unstable walls and the constant waterfalls of mud. Their eyes never left the water, searching for any sign at all... They had passed one-third of the opening's height when suddenly Eomer burst out of the pool, gasping for air and covered with clumps of mud. Quickly he floundered to the nearest solid purchase, heaving up water with hoarse, gulping coughs. "Are you unhurt?" Aragorn cried, just as Faramir opened his mouth. Eomer continued to cough, hauling himself up the side of the pit, grabbing large fistfuls of drenched clay with his hands. "I had him," he gagged, his voice thick with anger. "I *HAD* him!" A the next moment, there was another, louder splash, as Boromir broke the surface. Unlike Eomer, there was no gasping or coughing; as Boromir paddled to the side of the pit and began to climb out, he appeared as dry and clean as if prepared for court. Once he drew himself more than halfway from the water, it became apparent that he was dragging something behind him, which to nobody's surprise turned out to be the Orc. The beast was covered with even more thick globs of mud than Eomer, the sacks of stolen goods still slung across his body. Aragorn and Faramir slowly helped Eomer out of the hole, while Boromir hefted the Orc up the side with little trouble at all. Once at the top, they all collapsed onto the ground, except for Boromir, who nonchalantly dumped the Orc into the mud and went to his comrades. The rain had begun to slacken. "How's he faring?" the spirit asked as he rejoined the others. Eomer nodded as he finished wiping the mud from his eyes; Aragorn was soundly thumping his back. "I'm well," he insisted, his voice still rough. "After the earth swallowed us, the Orc and I became mired at the bottom of the pit." He choked a little, shook his head, then looked up at Boromir. "My thanks for saving my life, son of Gondor. It would have been the foulest fate to me, to die beside an Orc!" Boromir smiled. "I'm fairly sure Eowyn would have found a way to kill me again if I had not acted," he replied, before turning to glance at the dead Orc. "He wasn't as cooperative as you, unfortunately. I tried to tell him to drop the sacks, but he thwarted all of my efforts to undo them. By the time I was able to pull him free, it was too late." "It would have been the first time you'd *saved* an Orc's life," observed Faramir, panting heavily from the exertion, his face flushed. "Imagine the shock of our people back home!" Aragorn rose. "They will be shocked enough, when they see the condition we return in," he remarked, looking towards the mountains before them. "At least we know now that we are nearing their lair; had he been seeking to merely hide, he could have done that in the hill we ran from." They sat in silence for a moment, the only sound being the steady sploop of random bits of earth tumbling into the hole. "I would suggest," said Faramir, climbing to his feet as well, "that we try to find some dry place to rest for a bit and collect ourselves. I have had enough rocks and mud for the morning; if we are to find and flush out an entire passel of Orcs, I would like at least a chance for lunch first." The others agreed, and when he felt rested enough they helped Eomer to his feet. Before too long the four travelers were climbing the rocks at the base of the mountain, hoping fortune would favor them in some kind, dry manner. After some investigation, a cave was discovered, large and dry enough to afford adequate shelter for their rest. To their immense relief, a portion of the cave contained a waterfall some ten feet in height, draining into a small pool. Openings in the cave roof afforded enough light to see by, and soon the men had eagerly shed their sodden, muddy clothes and were busy rinsing the grime from their weary bodies. "You know, Aragorn, I think this is the cleanest you've ever been," mused Boromir as he lounged beside the pool, watching with amusement. "Two baths in two days. Your Queen won't recognize you." Aragorn was standing under the falls, stretching and allowing the water to run over his lean form. "She has seen me covered with the dust of travel before," the King noted with a smile. "Wash your wounds well, my friends, this may be our last chance for a while." "Covered with dust is one thing," said Eomer as he tried to pry a particularly stubborn bit of mud from his hair. "Covered with half of Arda is something else." Boromir grinned, then turned to Faramir, who was sitting at the edge of the pool with his legs dangling in the water, clad now only in his rolled-up leggings and untying the mud-soaked bandage around his stomach. "What say you, brother-do you think the Court would recognize your King slathered in mud?" Faramir smiled and looked up. He was breathing heavily, his cheeks still quite red. "I don't think they'd appreciate having filth tracked all over the halls," he replied, and shivered. Boromir frowned and walked over to him. "Are you unwell?" The younger man scowled and shook his head, sniffing as he turned his attention back to the bandage. "Yes, fine. I think I've just caught a cold. Eowyn had one a few weeks back. That's all." The other two men waded over to join them. Aragorn's handsome face was lined with concern. "It may be more than a mere cold, my Steward," he cautioned. As they looked at him now, it was obvious that Faramir was trembling, his face glistening with sweat. "No, I'm all right," Faramir said firmly, swinging his legs out of the water and climbing carefully to his feet. No sooner had he done so than he turned completely white, swayed for a moment, then toppled straight to the floor. By the time Boromir swiftly caught him in his arms, the young Steward was utterly limp. In moments, Boromir had his brother laid out upon the cool stone, Faramir's head pillowed on his lap. Aragorn and Eomer were at his side quickly, their eyes all keen with concern. "Faramir," breathed Aragorn, anxiety filling his face as he placed his palm against the younger man's brow. Faramir had recovered his senses, his eyes fluttering open once more to look at his King as he began to moan and cough. "What ails him?" asked Eomer in a worried, bewildered tone. Aragorn sighed, his expression grave. "More than a mere cold, I fear," he murmured quietly, studying the Steward's wan features. "I think I know what it might be," Faramir said weakly when he had regained his breath, and reached down to his stomach bandage. The knot was loose now, and he pulled it aside. His other wounds were healing perfectly, but the shallow cut across his stomach gave an entirely different appearance. The skin around the cut was bright red and swollen, the wound itself covered with a horrid blackish crust. At the sight of it, Faramir sighed in frustration, shook his head, and looked up at the King, a grim look on his flushed face as he spoke one word. "Poison." Boromir muttered something in a low and threatening tone and looked away, his expression furious. At once, Aragorn bent over the wound, examining it very closely while trying not to touch it in such a way as to cause Faramir further pain. "You are fortunate it was no deeper than a scratch," he murmured after a few moments. "Any more of a wound and you'd likely have joined Boromir in the spirit realm by now." "I *feel* fortunate," replied Faramir in an unconvincing tone, and coughed again. The King quickly placed a hand on Faramir's brow. "Today's excitement may have quickened the poison's spread," he stated. "I'm sure it will be no news to you, my friend, but although there is but little venom in your blood, your fever is very high. I shall venture out and try to find some athelas, that will keep you with us until we can get you out of this land and back to the city." Faramir's eyes had drifted closed, but now they snapped open and he looked at Aragorn in dismay. "You're not breaking off the hunt, my King?" Aragorn glanced down at him, a bit surprised. "I would say there is little choice," was his response. "I would not risk your life, even if it meant the capture of every last Orc on Arda." "Do not fret, little brother," said Boromir soothingly, patting Faramir's shoulder. "It is too soon for you to join me; the Land of the Dead can only handle the arrival of one of us at a time! They won't be ready for you for a hundred years, at least." He thought a moment, then looked at Aragorn. "I can watch over Faramir here, while you and Eomer King continue the search. We are very close, I feel, and the Orcs must pay for this, chief among their crimes." Aragorn gazed at him, then shook his head. "If you are discovered, it may go ill," he declared. "Even though you are deathless, Faramir is not, and should it be a large party of Orcs that find you, sooner or later they may yet overwhelm you and take Faramir's life. It is too great a risk." "As is allowing them to go even one more day unhindered!" insisted Faramir; he was very flushed now, the sweat beading on his face and chest. "While we quit our mission, they may take more of our kinsman's lives. That thought makes me more ill than any Orc's poison! Please, my liege-they must be stopped. I will not rest well otherwise." By the end of these words, Faramir had grown very pale save for the bright redness of his cheeks, and was panting for breath as if he had just finished a vigorous swordfight. His voice had dropped to almost a whisper, yet there was no denying the determination burning in his fever-bright blue eyes. Aragorn studied him closely, then pursed his lips and looked at Eomer. "What say you, king of Rohan?" Eomer's eyes were burning almost as brightly as Faramir's. "I say, if the Orc who dared poison my brother-in-law wasn't already dead, I would find and butcher him myself," he snarled. "A violent but highly appreciated sentiment," murmured Faramir with a drowsy smile. His eyelids had fallen half-closed. Eomer nodded at him, then turned to Aragorn. "It is a hard choice," he admitted. "The Orcs are so close, and I am yearning to spill their blood, yet I would not risk Faramir's life in exchange for their downfall. I could not face my sister and tell her that our mission succeeded, but our effort to save her husband's life failed. She would die herself then, I believe." "Not before killing us, she wouldn't," sighed Aragorn, placing a hand on Faramir's arm with as much of a reassuring smile as he could manage. "I shall see about finding the athelas, and think of what we have said. If there is none to be found, the choice will have been made for us." Faramir gazed at him for a moment through nearly-closed eyes, then nodded, the lids finally sliding shut. "Agreed," he whispered, and appeared to fall asleep. Quickly, Aragorn stood. "Eomer, if you would, remain here and safeguard the cave with Boromir. I will be back before nightfall." "Oh, here," said Boromir, reaching up and unslinging the ghostly Horn of Gondor from his shoulder and handing it to Aragorn. "Use that if you run into trouble and need help. It has worked pretty well for me, in the past." Aragorn accepted the gift, an expression of surprise on his face. "I am deeply honored, Boromir," he said softly; the Horn had a faint greenish glow about it. He turned it over in his hands; it seemed as solid as the original Horn. "Er-does it work, as yours did in life?" Boromir shrugged with a smile. "Let us hope you have no cause to find out," he said. Aragorn nodded, dressed quickly in his rinsed-out garments, and squished his way back out into the rain. From his reclining place, Faramir opened one eye and peered up at his brother. "Father's going to *kill* you for that, you know," he said. His voice was very weak, but there was a faint smile on his lips. Boromir looked down at his brother and chuckled, gently stroking Faramir's hair. "Yes," he said, seemingly very amused at the idea, "I know." ******
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