A Mud Summer Night's Dream, Chapter 5

To the absolute frustration of everyone involved, the afternoon passed without event.

Aragorn traveled far, always on guard against attack, searching for any sign of greenery. The land around the cave was wild and barren, however, composed mostly of boulder-strewn black rock. Every once in a while, he would come across an area of green growing things, struggling from between the cracks of stone, but it was all merely grass. There seemed to be no oasis close by, as they had encountered a few days earlier, and he chided himself severely for not procuring athelas there, if it existed. He should have known this might happen.

It continued to rain, a more steady, dispiriting drizzle than the sheets that had pounded their heads earlier. As Aragorn moved among the glistening rocks, searching for hope, he found his mood matching the dreary landscape. Despite the minor nature of the wound, there was still a chance for Faramir to lose his life, and they had not found the Orcs. As the afternoon wore on, he became melancholy, and began to plot the best way for them to return to Minas Tirith in such a way that would ensure Faramir's survival and enable them to escape the notice of their foes.


Back at the cave, circumstances were no more promising. Faramir's wound had been cleaned, redressed and bandaged, and he had now slipped into a uneasy slumber, shuddering with chills even as his skin burned. Boromir had removed his ghostly Elvish cloak-his garments were the only dry ones they had-and folded it into a thick pillow for his brother's head. Now Faramir lay on the cold stone, covered with Boromir's leather surcoat, tossing occasionally and murmuring in his sleep, sweat running across his skin. Boromir sat beside him, legs crossed, hands folded, his expression somber as he maintained his vigil. Not a word had passed his lips since removing his coat and draping it across Faramir's supine form. There seemed nothing to do but wait.

Eomer, too anxious to simply sit inside the cave, had volunteered to keep watch for Aragorn's return and against possible attack, and now sat at the mouth of the cavern, his dark eyes scanning the dank landscape for any sign of movement. He was afforded some shelter by an overhanging outcropping of rock; once in a while it would drip on him, but he paid it no heed. He was far too immersed in brooding thoughts of what he was going to do to the Orcs once they found them - and they would find them, even if it meant coming back to this accursed land and living in the mud for months.

The light was just beginning to fade from gray to a darker shade of gray when Eomer spied a small figure moving across the jagged landscape towards the cave. Instantly he tensed and stood, reaching for his weapon, but as the person drew closer, he recognized him and relaxed.

It was Aragorn, weary, dripping wet, and empty-handed.

Eomer sighed when the Gondorian king drew close enough to hear him. "No sign of athelas?" he inquired.

The other man shook his head, his face betraying deep disappointment. "I do not believe there is a blade of anything other than mountain grass for ten miles around," he replied in a tired voice, and without pausing stepped past Eomer and into the cave. Eomer scowled a little with concern, and followed him.

Inside, he found Aragorn kneeling beside Faramir, feeling the slumbering man's brow and listening as Boromir addressed him in a low, worried voice. Faramir had grown more pale, dark circles beginning to form beneath his eyes.

"He has been in a restless sleep all afternoon," the spirit was saying. "I don't think his fever's gotten any worse, but he will need medicine of some sort very soon."

Aragorn's lip twitched, and he removed his hand, a sad look on his face. "There is no athelas in these mountains," he informed him, his tone one of sorrow. "At first light, we must return to Minas Tirith, if Faramir's life is to be spared."

A faint moan escaped Faramir's lips, and the stricken man stirred a little, taking a deep breath as he emerged from his heavy slumber. After a moment, his eyes slowly opened halfway, and he blinked a few times before their bleary gaze rested on Aragorn.

At Aragorn's expression, Faramir frowned. "An ill end to your search, my liege?" he murmured, his words slurred.

The King forced a smile as he lightly grasped Faramir's wrist. "It appears the green touch of the Valar did not extend to this region," was his softly spoken reply. "There is nothing here that can help you. We will return home as soon as it is light, where the poison that has taken you may be cured."

Faramir observed him for a moment, his brows knitting with disappointment, before sighing and half-closing his eyes. "Very well," he breathed, "although I cannot tell you how much I hate this. Is there not some way the hunt can continue?"

"Not without placing your life in danger," was Aragorn's firm response. "Fear not, as soon as we know you are safe, the Orcs will be repaid."

Faramir met his gaze steadily, and answered with a single, resolute nod before closing his eyes once more. Aragorn glanced over at Boromir, the man and the ghost exchanging grim looks of determination before the King of Gondor arose and began preparations for the night ahead.

It was rapidly growing dark outside, and the interior of the cavern was soon settled with a musty gloom. As the men went about laying down their camp, Aragorn unpacked the lembas bread and rationed it out, handing Eomer a small piece as the Rohan monarch headed outside to stand watch.

"You are in no immediate danger, Faramir, but you must keep up your strength so that your state does not worsen between here and home," Aragorn said, crouching beside the stricken Steward. Boromir was propping Faramir up and helping him to drink from a water skin, which he was rapidly emptying.

Faramir eyed the small piece of lembas bread in the Kings' hand, and shook his head as he took the water skin from his mouth. "My thanks, but no, my King," he gasped, trying to regain his breath after drinking so long. "That would not stay in my stomach five minutes, I fear."

"Now, you must eat, little brother," chided Boromir, his tone wheedling although his green eyes were anxious. "We can't have you starving to death. Think what your wife would do to us!"

The younger man coughed and settled back against his brother's arm. "It's not a matter of stubbornness," he insisted in a fatigued tone. "Just of practicality. We only have so much food, and I know I will not be able to keep that down, so I see no need to waste it. Water will be fine for me, for I am burning with thirst far more than hunger."

Aragorn peered at him for a few long moments, then sighed again and broke a very small piece from the section he held, placing the fragment in Faramir's hand.

"Pray try to eat that, at least, my friend, when you feel you can," he pleaded. "If your stomach refuses it, the loss will be small. I will not be able to rest unless I am assured you will try."

Faramir glanced down at the tiny bit of bread, then nodded slightly and looked up at Aragorn, a faint but grateful smile on his lips. "If I am able, I promise you I will, my liege. Thank you."

"I wish there were more I could do," was the former Ranger's quiet reply as he patted Faramir's arm. "Rest now. We leave for home at dawn tomorrow."

With a parting smile to Faramir, Aragorn rose and joined Eomer, who was standing outside the mouth of the cave, carefully consuming his portion of the lembas.

"You know," he said, munching, as Aragorn came up to him, "this really is a remarkable food. Do you think a human baker could reproduce it? Our soldiers could make much use of a provision such as this."

Aragorn took up his place a small distance away, seating himself on a rock. From his perch, he had a wide view of the surrounding plains, now growing dark beneath the coming nightfall. "When we return, I shall ask Arwen to instruct you in its creation," he answered, knocking the sole of his boot against the rock to dislodge the large clumps of mud still clinging there. "If she is still speaking to me after she sees the state I return in, that is."

Eomer laughed a little and swallowed the last of his meal. "Your Queen is a remarkable woman, Aragorn," he observed. "I believe she will forgive you for a little mud."

The King of Gondor smiled and settled himself on the rock, turning his eyes to the wide and barren plains. "Yes," he said in agreement, his voice softening, "she has an unfathomable capacity in that regard." He sighed, looking into the heavens where the first stars were peering from between the large clouds, "As disappointing as it is to return home with our work interrupted, it will ease my heart to hold her once more. If I had known being King would require us to spend so much time apart, I might have thought twice about accepting the crown."

Eomer nodded, shifting on his feet and he studied the empty terrain. "It is the same with Lothiriel and I," he confessed, his expression softening. "I reached manhood giving little thought to love or marriage, with so much work to be done. I assumed that any union would be arranged. But my Queen..." He paused, a pensive light in his brown eyes. "None has so possessed my heart, as she does. I used to love nothing more than the chance to ride out from Edoras and travel the length and breadth of Rohan, the wind at my back. Now all of the charms of my life lie at the hearth of the Golden Hall, beside her." He shook his head. "I would not have believed it of myself, but never have I been more content."

The other man nodded in perfect understanding, sitting forward and leaning his elbows on his knees. "We are two mortally wounded men, my friend," he said lightly, scanning the horizon. "And there will come a day when we shall return to the hearth to stay, but it will be long in coming, I fear. To see that time, we will all have to be strong."

Eomer inclined his head in solemn accord, and joined Aragorn in watching the still and silent land. Darkness had fallen now; above the wet earth rose a silver-gray mist that crept and clung to the ground like a living fog. Now and then shafts of silver moonlight would emerge from behind the rolling clouds, striking the mist and covering the land in an eerie glow.

After a while, Boromir emerged from the shelter, softly glowing himself in the murky gloom.

"All quiet, I trust?" he inquired, taking his rest on a rock near the cave opening, where he had an easy view of Faramir.

"If the Orcs see fit to move across that plain, we will see them," Aragorn promised. "Is Faramir resting?"

The ghost nodded and leaned back against the moist cave wall, looking inside with a worried expression. "He ate a little of the bread, and finally drifted off, although he is far from comfortable. The sooner he is taken home, the better, as much as he detests the idea."

"I hope he does not blame himself for being poisoned by an Orc blade," Eomer pointed out. "It could have been any of us."

Boromir drew a deep breath. "He knows that, I am sure, but he takes such things to heart. I am sure you know that he longs to do all he can to make certain Gondor is safe, despite any risk to himself." He smiled a little and turned to them. "The moment he is well again, he will likely be at the head of the column to come back here and finish the task."

"And we will surely welcome him there," was Aragorn's reply. "I doubt we could accomplish this without his help. The Orcs have been spared a little time, but their day is coming."

"Without a doubt," Boromir said firmly in assent.

Aragorn reached up, unslung the Horn of Gondor from his side and handed it back to the spirit. "My thanks," he said, "but I believe it is time to return this to its rightful bearer."

"Ah," Boromir nodded and accepted it, draping it over his own shoulder. "At least you did not have to use it. You can't imagine how pleased I was to find it made whole once more, but I would be more satisfied if there was never a need for it to sound again." He settled the Horn on his hip, then looked up. "So, I hope I did not interrupt any important conversation."

"We were simply missing our wives," Eomer explained with a sigh, leaning back against the cave and looking morosely at the glimmering mud flats.

"Ah! Well, I have nothing to offer there," admitted Boromir. "I was joined to none in marriage, and those whose hearts I shared have doubtless all done their mourning for me and moved on."

Aragorn peered over at him through the gloom. "Yet as you are, you could go to those you loved in Minas Tirith and ease their sorrow. I am sure they would want to know you are well."

But Boromir shook his head with a sad smile. "I will go no farther than the borders of this land," he replied. "They have all grieved, and healed, or are healing now; I would not reopen those wounds, for sooner or later I would have to leave again. It is as it should be. Most of them have forgotten about me anyway, I wager."

Aragorn gave him a sharp, amused look. "Except, perhaps, for the women at the Minas Tirith Ladies Academy?"

The spirit looked a little startled, then laughed softly, shaking his head. "Faramir will never forgive me for mentioning that!" he chuckled.

Eomer eyed him curiously. "It seems they would remember your brother as well, judging from his reaction to your mention of the place," he recalled. "Exactly what mischief did you two find there?"

The spirit chuckled. "Well, as fortune has it, I may tell you," he replied. "I swore to Faramir that I would not, and ordinarily I would hold that oath unbreakable, but he felt it might provide a welcome distraction from our situation. Before he fell asleep, he said, if it appeared that our spirits wanted lifting, I was free to divulge all."

Aragorn gazed out over the flat, dark plains. "I would say the time has come," he muttered in a weary voice, before turning his expectant gaze to Boromir.

A gentle smile graced Boromir's lips. "I was sixteen and Faramir was almost twelve," he began, his eyes fixed on some distant point on the horizon but seeing much farther. "He had just fallen in love for the first time. Oh, had he been smitten! I had come home on leave from my first assignment, but you'd hardly know I had gone anywhere from his woeful inattention to me. All his mind was on her."

Aragorn and Eomer both leaned forward intently.

"She was the daughter of one of Father's court nobles-Faramir made me swear not to reveal her name, so don't bother asking! I knew her a little, she was sweet enough, but he had not the faintest idea how to approach her." He shook his head, smiling fondly. "For all of the love poetry he'd read and written as a child, his first real-life encounter left him speechless."

Eomer and Aragorn smiled as well, their expressions reflecting their complete understanding.

"Finally," exclaimed Boromir, placing his hands on his knees, "he composed a love poem for her, and a very good one, too, but could not work up the nerve to give it to her. On the day of my return to the city, he was still trying to figure out a way to send it to her secretly, without anyone knowing.

"The next day," he continued, gesturing with his hands to illustrate his words, "he came to me fairly bursting with excitement and said that he had been researching the history of Minas Tirith's architecture, and discovered an old entry route into the building that had eventually become the Ladies Academy, where the girl now spent part of the year. Between the two of us, we devised a scheme: We would slip into the school at night, leave the note for her to find, and depart with none the wiser. "

"Sounds like a good test for a fledgling soldier," Eomer observed with a grin. "Stealth is a highly important skill, after all."

Boromir nodded. "Very true, and at the time I considered myself quite skilled at it. Now," he went on in a low voice, leaning forward, his raised hands spread out as he described the scene, "the old entrance was in a secluded back corner of the building, almost at the edge of the wall. We wore dark clothes and managed to get out of our chambers without notice, and as there are always people about in the city even at night, none thought it odd to see two young men traveling the streets. We had drawn up our hoods, so nobody recognized us. We found the door unlocked and gained entry."

At this point, Boromir stood and began pacing a short distance back and forth, his keen gaze shifting between his two comrades as he spoke. He had the full attention of the two monarchs; Eomer stood with his arms folded, while Aragorn was still perched on his rock, leaning forward to hear every word.

"Once inside, Faramir, who had studied the plans intimately, knew exactly where he wanted to go. The young lady took calligraphy lessons first class in the morning; he would locate the classroom, find where her work was stored, and slip the note between the leaves of her book.

"The halls were deserted, and we had little trouble finding the classroom. Soon the poem was in place, and we began making our way out, congratulating ourselves on our cleverness and skill. I recall wishing I could tell my commander about it, thinking how impressed he would be."

The two kings nodded and laughed softly, remembering the youthful need to earn the praise of their superiors.

"We were making our way past the bathing rooms," said Boromir, stopping in his tracks and spreading his arms out, palms down, "when suddenly we heard footsteps coming from around the corner just ahead of us." He chuckled and shook his head. "Both of us panicked, knowing full well what would happen to us if we were caught!

"There was a large wooden door, which appeared to be a cabinet, close by us. Consumed with fear," - here he grasped an imaginary handle and pulled it back violently - "Faramir wrenched open the door. It appeared to be empty, so we both leapt inside." At this, he threw his arms up as if making a strenuous jump.

Then he paused and gave them both a rather crestfallen look.

"Unfortunately, this particular cabinet turned out to have no floor to it."

Eomer and Aragorn both widened their eyes in surprise.

"We plunged down into the darkness," Boromir continued, his words becoming faster, "too shocked to cry out, and in a matter of moments struck the bottom. When I regained my senses, I realized it was a pile of dirty linens.

"We had tumbled down a laundry chute."

Eomer and Aragorn blinked, then glanced quickly at each other and traded suppressed grins, as if trying not to burst out into laughter.

Their expressions did not escape Boromir's notice. "Yes, we probably would have been amused as well, were we not so dazed and startled," he said. "By good fortune, the linen pile was thick enough to provide some cushioning, but not enough to prevent us from giving our rear ends some fairly solid thumps. We were now in the deserted laundry room, sitting in one of those large canvas bins they used to wheel the loads around."

He began pacing again, walking in more leisurely strides, loosely clasping his hands behind his back

"After making sure we were each all right, we made to climb out of the bin, but at that moment we were buried under what must have been forty pounds of soaking wet towels." He shook his head again, a rueful smile gracing his features. "The chamber staff must have been making their rounds for the evening. Every time we tried to get out, more came down on top of us. Soon we were both dripping wet, pinned under a mound of sopping towels, and almost unable to breathe." He grinned. "A pretty state for Gondor's finest!"

"Yet nothing two brave young warriors could not handle, I'm sure," said Aragorn, giving him a sharply appraising look.

"Ah, but that was not the last of our challenges, my good King of Gondor," Boromir answered, stopping and lifting a finger to stress the point. "As soon as the wet towels stopped dropping down, we realized there were voices above us, and the bin started to move! We could see nothing, but I guessed the staff had come down to prepare the loads for the laundresses. We had no idea where we were going, but I did hear one of the women complain about how heavy our bin was." He drew a deep breath, expelling it quickly and peering at his companions. "Thank the Valar she didn't try to find out why!

"Before long, the movement stopped, but the voices remained, along with other noises that told me we were surrounded by workers." His face took on expression akin to pained amusement as he recalled that night. "We must have crouched beneath those piles of wet towels for *hours*, waiting for a chance to escape. Finally the voices died away, and all was still."

"I imagine you must have been very relieved at that point," observed Eomer. "Not to mentioned wrinkled."

"Well, we had had quite enough of the smell of wet towels and stale soap," Boromir replied, resuming his short stroll. "When we dared, we clawed our way to the top of the pile and found ourselves lined up with all of the other full bins next to the large water troughs in which the laundresses washed the clothes.

"Very stiff, sore, and drenched to the bone, we managed to climb out of the bin. It was chancy work, getting out, for the other bins surrounded us and they were all piled high with towels and linens." He raised his arms with hands outstretched to indicate the height. "We had to hoist ourselves over several of them to gain solid ground again. As soon as we did, we hastened out of the laundry, and Faramir kept enough of his wits about him to recall how to find our way out of the school.

"It was almost dawn then, and we were very thankful no one was in the streets to see two wet, sniffling young men slogging their way up to the Steward's palace. We somehow were able to sneak back into our rooms, and had enough time to dry off, change our soaked garments, and sleep for an hour or two before it was time to begin our day."

Boromir walked back to the nearby rock and sat down, folding his hands and shaking his head. "Needless to say, we were both exhausted, and Father berated us severely for being so inattentive at breakfast. He assumed we'd spent the whole night talking, since I had just returned. It took us a few days to completely recover, and we both caught very nasty colds and an irritating rash."

He paused, then sighed and smiled, looking up at his two friends. "And that is the tale."

"Did Faramir's poem impress his love enough to be worth all the trouble?" inquired Aragorn.

"Yes, but plainly, the bond proved rather fickle," replied Boromir, glancing inside at his sleeping brother. "She allowed him to court her for a while, but she did not prove as fascinating to him in truth as she had in fancy. After a while, they both became bored, and agreed between themselves to move on. But I do recall she kept the poem. I suppose now she can say she got it from the Steward of Gondor."

"It would be even more valuable to her had she known the trouble he went to to give it to her," Eomer observed. "He must have felt very strongly about this girl."

"Ha!" gasped Boromir, peering at the Rohan king. "That's nothing compared to what he feels for your sister. From what he's told me, he is hers heart and soul." His expression became wistful. "I should tell you, Eomer King, I am very pleased you allowed them to wed. She is a highly admirable woman, and had I been present, I would have approved of the match without hesitation."

Eomer seemed a little surprised. "And could I have found a better man for her than Lord Faramir?" he asked. "She is his, as much as he is hers. Had I refused her my consent, she would have flayed me alive. Fortunately, I had no cause, as I have known few warriors so courageous and honorable. And when it was known I sought your cousin's hand in marriage, he could not give me his blessing fast enough."

"You may add my blessing to his, for what it's worth," Boromir said, leaning back upon the rock. "You do our family proud with your presence in it. After everything we have all been through, it is good to know that you have all found some measure of peace, at last."

"And we will make certain that peace holds," vowed Aragorn, casting his eyes back across the misty plains. The other man and the spirit nodded their agreement, and they fell silent, each man left to his own thoughts as they watched the moonswept land and contemplated what the next day would hold for them.

At length, as before, Boromir volunteered to keep watch while Aragorn and Eomer found what sleep they could before beginning their return journey in the morning. Both men agreed and went inside, to find Faramir still wrapped in slumber, his fever continuing but apparently no worse than before. Each man retired to his bedroll, and before long, the cave fell quiet again, save for the gentle splashing of the waterfall.

They awoke shortly before dawn the next morning, to find Faramir's state unchanged and a cool, gray day being born outside. While Aragorn set out to scout their near surroundings and make certain it was safe to leave the cave, Eomer packed up his gear in readiness for the journey, while Boromir set himself to the task of preparing his stricken brother for travel.

As Eomer finished packing the last of his mud-stained clothes, he gradually becoming aware of weak, agitated mutterings coming from elsewhere in the cave, followed by softly spoken words meant to soothe. After a few moments, their volume increased, and Eomer turned to locate their source, believing that Faramir had awakened and was out of his mind from the fever. He had seen it happen, with men sickened by Orcish poison.

Looking to where Faramir had been sleeping, he saw the young Steward very much awake, sitting up rather unsteadily and clutching at Boromir's shirt while saying something in feeble but insistent tones. In return, Boromir was gently grasping Faramir's arms and replying in tones just as firm. Neither brother seemed to be budging an inch.

Eomer stood and strode over, anxious to help calm his ailing brother-in-law. Outside, dawn had broken, and the cavern was now filled with a dull grayish light.

"Boromir, please, you've *got* to find Aragorn-"

"He'll be here, little brother, he's just gone to make certain it is safe before we leave this shelter. Now settle yourself and be still!"

"Curse it, I'm not a *child*, we need to find Aragorn *now*! I'll go out there myself if I - Eomer! Would you go out and see if there is any sign of Aragorn?"

Boromir looked up as Eomer approached. "Ah," he said, relief in his voice. "Good King of Rohan, would you mind terribly sitting on my brother? He seems to have decided he's not ill enough and wants to make himself moribund."

"Boromir!" snapped Faramir crossly, giving his brother a very angry look before turning his bright-eyed gaze back to Eomer. His breath was coming in panting gasps. "Please, can you find Aragorn? I must speak with him at once."

Eomer crouched on one knee by Faramir's side, worry clouding his eyes. "Why this sudden urgency? Has your illness grown worse?"

Faramir shook his head, his sweat-soaked hair swinging from the motion. "No, I mean, perhaps, but I cannot say. This has nothing to do with my health." He blinked, as if gathering himself, then lifted his head to look at each man in turn. "I know where the Orcs are."

Eomer and Boromir stared at him, both frowning in deep confusion. After a moment, Eomer managed to gasp out, "*What?*"

The younger man nodded as vigorously as he was able; his eyes were clear and lucid, despite the weakness ravaging his body. "Exactly; I can show you every step of the way."

The other two men glanced at each other.

"It appears my Steward has awakened," came another voice from the entrance to the cave, and three pairs of eyes turned to see Aragorn coming towards them, clad in his traveling clothes, the ghostly Horn of Gondor slung from one shoulder.

"Aragorn!" cried Faramir, as he hastily tried to stand up. "Aragorn, I must-oop!" No sooner had he gotten to his knees than they gave way; three pairs of arms reached for Faramir, but it was Aragorn who caught him and lowered him carefully back to the ground.

"Do not overexert yourself, my friend," the King gently advised him. "You must stay strong, until we reach home, or find some athelas-"

"To Morgoth with the athelas!" spat Faramir, clutching Aragorn's arms. "I know where the Orcs are. We can find them this day!"

Aragorn peered at him, narrowing his eyes. "How can you know this?"

Faramir had to pause and gasp for breath, leaning against Boromir for support. "I had a dream," he replied, as Boromir put an arm around his shoulder, holding him up. "I saw the foothills outside, just as they are, down to the last pebble. Then, quickly, step by step I was moving over them, perceiving every inch of the path as clearly as if I were awake, until I was standing before the Orc encampment. It is in a shallow vale surrounded by trees, some distance inside the mountains." He swallowed, shaking his head. "I saw it as plainly as I am seeing you."

The Gondor King studied the ailing man as Eomer handed Faramir a water skin. "Could this be some fancy brought on by the fever?" he asked.

Faramir shook his head as he drank from the water skin, nearly draining it. "No, I am sure of it," he answered with a gasp once he had finished answering his thirst. "I know my visions from my dreams of fancy, my liege. Often to my sadness, they have never proven false."

"It is true, Aragorn," added Boromir, peering at the King over his brother's head. "He's been having these dreams since he was a child, and they speak nothing but the truth."

"And besides," added Faramir with a slight smile, as he settled against Boromir, now utterly spent, "if it were a figment of my mind, I am fairly sure Eowyn would have been in it."

Aragorn allowed a smile to cross his face. "And you are certain you know the way shown to you?"

"Yes, yes," was the firm response. "That is one other way I know that the vision was sent to me for a reason. I had the dream not once, but several times, until I could walk the way blindfolded."

Eomer's eyebrows went up. "Several times?"

Faramir's lip twitched. "Yes. Um, eight, to be exact." He sighed and looked at Aragorn, his voice gaining an edge of annoyance. "Do you have any idea how monotonous it is to have the same dream *eight times in a row*? That is another cause to find the Orcs as soon as possible. I would rather not endure that again."

"That is understandable," Aragorn said with a short nod. "We must now make haste, to find the creatures while the day is still young. Can you tell us the way to their camp?"

Faramir thought about this for a moment or two, then pressed his lips together and shook his head. "It is a very winding path, through the foothills of the mountains. I see no way to make it plain which rock to turn at and which way to follow, when there are so many." He raised his head. "It appears we shall all have to go together."

"You cannot!" Eomer exclaimed, placing a hand on Faramir's shoulder. "Such a journey would kill you, if you are even able to walk at all."

Faramir opened his mouth to argue when Boromir interceded.

"Is not the answer obvious?" the spirit said with a slight smile. "There is a way for us all to go, and Faramir's life will not be endangered. I will carry my brother, and he will tell me the way."

Aragorn studied him. "It may be a long way, over dangerous ground," he remarked. "Should you tire, or fall-"

Boromir laughed a little. "Think you I would even suggest such a thing if I imagined it would place Faramir in the slightest peril?" he replied. "Yet I know it would not. If I can walk this land, including the rocks you all were having such trouble with yesterday, without the slightest misstep, and lift a giant Orc from a mud pit with no more trouble than if he were a feather pillow, I believe I can bear my brother across the foothills without care. I know not how or why, but my steps and strength are far more sure now than they were before, and I would use them to help you end this quest and get Faramir back home where he can heal."

"That is certainly agreeable to me," said Faramir, "and I suggest we waste no further time in discussion."

Aragorn's green eyes flitted between them both, a sober expression on his rain-slicked face as he weighed the situation. Then he nodded once. "Very well."

Within moments, they were prepared to leave. Faramir quickly donned his still-damp shirt and allowed himself to be wrapped in Boromir's Elven cloak, the hood drawn over his head. Once this was accomplished, Faramir placed one arm around Boromir's neck, and the older brother easily lifted the younger one, cradling him in his arms. Faramir coughed and settled against Boromir's chest, his face very pale and beaded with sweat, but his blue eyes hard with determination.

"The day's rain has not yet started, and with good fortune, it may still hold off until our work is done," observed Aragorn as they made their way to the mouth of the cave. "Boromir, you and Faramir lead the way. Eomer and I will follow, and we will soon see an end to this."

"Just do your best to keep pace, my friends," Boromir said in response, stepping past them. He looked down at Faramir. "Are you ready?"

"Yes, yes," was the anxious reply as Faramir lifted his head to study the path. Despite his misery, his tone became somewhat teasing. "Just try not to jounce me too roughly. If I am ill again, it will be on you!"

"You'll not feel a thing," promised the elder son as he ducked out of the cave. "Besides, I don't think it would stick."

They all left the cavern. Outside, the day was cool, the sky covered with bright gray clouds. The land was still covered with a fine mist, hiding the tops of the mountains. The mud flats looked as wet and treacherous as ever.

"So, brother," Boromir said with a bracing sigh, "which way to the Orcs?"

"Turn right," Faramir said at once. "No, your *other* right..."

And the hunt was on.

******

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