Two days of uneventful riding brought Aragorn, Faramir and Eomer to their destination, and at last they stood upon the border of the land in which the Orcs had made their hiding place.
“Amazing,” breathed Faramir as they beheld it. “It looks so much worse than I imagined.”
Before them stretched a vast open plain, extending from where they stood to the foothills of the southern mountains lining the distant horizon. Here and there stood isolated islands of waving trees, but for the most part the land was a flat, featureless, shining sea of mud. It appeared even more daunting in the uncertain light that now fell across the land, for gray clouds had obscured the sun since the men crossed the border into the south and it had been raining for almost an entire day. The air was still and silent, save for the dull pitter-patter of the thick raindrops striking the mud.
The three men stood for some time and looked at the seemingly unending ocean of goo. They were all soaked through, their shirts plastered to their chests, their long hair straggling down in dejected, dripping curls.
“I suppose we must go in,” Faramir continued, when his companions said nothing.
Aragorn nodded. “We shall shelter the horses and continue on foot; they may injure themselves on this uncertain ground.”
“Were it not for this accursed rain,” Eomer muttered in a cross tone, prodding at the mud with one toe of his boot, “we could find the Orcs by following their tracks. But all sign of passage is washed away at once.”
“And it will remain so, as this is the season of rain in this area,” Aragorn declared, shrugging his shoulders in his drenched leather tunic. “Blast, I forgot how this garment rides up when it’s wet.”
Faramir sighed and patted his horse’s neck. “Well, let us care for the horses and be on with it. Perhaps we will be fortunate and the rain will have drowned the Orcs.”
Soon the horses were safely hidden, with food and water enough to sustain them while their masters were away, and the three warriors were walking with firm, if squishy, step towards the muddy plains.
“Tread carefully,” Aragorn was saying as he strode onto the rain-washed terrain, “for this land is very-WOOP!”
There was a sodden *splush* as the King of Gondor did a spectacular flip and landed flat on his backside. It took all of the stoic training that Faramir and Eomer had endured as soldiers not to burst out in laughter.
“Are you uninjured, my liege?” Faramir inquired, when he felt he could talk without chuckling.
Aragorn sighed; he had sunk almost three inches into the mud and it was only with some effort that he managed to pull his hands free from the sucking ooze. After a moment, he shook the dripping substance from his hand, a wan smile on his spattered face.
“Right now your liege feels quite like a Shire pig in his wallow,” he said with weary humor. He turned to face his comrades. “Come forth, gentlemen, have you not the courage to share your comrade’s fate?”
Faramir tentatively placed one foot on the edge of the gooey earth, putting his weight on it slowly. It slipped almost at once; the mud was very soft and as slick as ice.
“Well,” Eomer said with resignation, “at least the rain will quickly cleanse us of our filth.”
Faramir looked at him and shrugged, raising his eyebrows in agreement. It was not as if they had much choice, with the safety of Gondor at stake.
Ten minutes later, they were making some progress into the interior of the land, having learned to traverse its treacherous paths with both caution and some degree of speed.
All three of them were completely covered with mud.
As they walked, the air was broken only by the slurping sound of their dogged footsteps as they slogged through the deep muck, the steady drumming of the incessant rain, and eventually by Faramir’s pragmatic, questioning voice.
“This trip isn’t going to get any better, is it?”
The three men continued their trek the entire day, each keeping a keen eye out for any sign of the Orcs. The mud continued to be a severe hindrance; every twenty feet or so one of them would hit an especially slick spot and wind up mired in the sludge. Eventually the response became routine: an exasperated sigh and a quick extraction, and the march would continue.
After what seemed like an eternity, the rain stopped, although the sky still appeared threatening. The huge dark clouds parted enough to admit glimpses of blue sky, and every once in a while the land would be swept with warm, welcome sunlight. The effect did nothing to dry the soggy ground, however, and only blinded the walkers as the light bounced off of the smooth, shiny mud.
Another problem soon presented itself, as the mud-soaked clothing now clinging to the men’s bodies began to dry. What was once merely wet, sloppy mud soon became scratchy, caked-on dirt that seemed to cling everywhere.
“Gah,” Faramir coughed as he brushed with futility at his dirt-encrusted arms. “I wonder if this land isn’t some leftover curse of Sauron. Wet or dry, it is as vexing as a whole pack of Uruks!”
Eomer was trudging forward with a fervent stride, ignoring the great clumps of earth that hung tangled in his long blonde hair. “I hope we meet our enemy soon,” he growled, a piercing gleam of annoyance in his eyes. “I find myself in the perfect mood to stab something.”
A smile crossed Aragorn’s dirt-streaked face. “Just do not get overly excited in your war-fever, King of Rohan, and confuse us with the Orcs! Covered with mud as we are, it may be hard to tell man from beast when the fighting breaks out.”
Their path took them close to the base of one of the mountains, an area skirted with green plants and trees. From their position on the open plain, it was impossible to see past the thick growth to the base of the hills. Within the lush oasis came the faint sound of roaring water.
Aragorn stopped and looked at the sky. “The sun is setting,” he observed. “I suggest we make camp in the foothills; once night falls, it will be too dangerous to travel further. We shall eat, rest, and prepare to renew our search tomorrow.”
He paused at the edge of the vegetation and drew his sword.
Faramir unsheathed his weapon as well, his keen blue eyes searching the thick grasses and tall trees for any signs of hidden Orcs. “I would also say a bath would be in order,” he suggested. “We’ll get dirty again tomorrow, but right now I’d just like to cleanse myself, if only for a while.”
“I have great pity for any Orc in there,” snarled Eomer as he studied the foothills, “if he dares stand between me and the chance to be rid of this cursed filth!”
Aragorn smiled. “Use whatever incentive for battle you will, my friends,” he said, and they waded stealthily into the brush.
A thorough search of the small area revealed no Orcs. It did uncover the fact that at the base of the mountain, hidden from view of the plains, was a wide waterfall some fifty feet in height, splashing over several rounded boulders to tumble into a wide shallow pool below. Once aware of its presence, the men could not help casting glances of longing in its direction while they secured the rest of the oasis.
“It would seem we are alone,” announced Eomer after they had all combed the region to their satisfaction.
“I agree,” Aragorn replied, looking around. “Though we must still be on our guard.”
“My opinion matches yours,” added Faramir, stripping his pack from his back. “Now that we have settled that matter, I am ready to bathe, so that I may enjoy at least a few hours of mud-free existence.”
In silent acquiescence, all three men found their way of the edge of the pool. The sky had partly cleared, the late afternoon sun turning the air warm and humid. With a complete nonchalance born of many years of living among Rangers and soldiers, they completely doffed their stiff, dirty garments with no self-consciousness at all.
“I believe this mud is a tool of Morgoth,” Faramir observed as he peeled off his trousers. “Every inch of my skin is covered with it, even beneath my clothes.”
“It is very wet sometimes on the plains of Rohan,” Eomer stated as he tossed his muddy, balled-up shirt aside and began pulling off his boots. “But even our worst swamps are nothing like this. Small wonder those filthy Orcs like it.”
Aragorn finished disrobing first, his garb placed in a small pile by the water’s edge. As the other two men removed the last of their dirty clothing, the King stood by the pool and stuck one foot in.
“What does the royal foot say of the water?” inquired Faramir with a slight smile as he stood, now fully unclothed, his garments in his arms.
“It is not overly warm,” was the reply, as Aragorn swiftly stepped into the pool, “but nothing three mighty warriors cannot bear.” He ventured several feet away from shore, finally standing up to his waist in the water.
“Hmm,” was Faramir’s only comment as he set his clothing down by the King’s and waded slowly in. It was cool, but not cold, and the temperature seemed to matter little compared to the delightful sensation of the offending mud being rinsed from his body.
“Bah,” Eomer grunted, plowing into the pond with enough force to cause small waves. “In Rohan, we bathe in frozen streams during the winter.”
“And eat icicles for breakfast, no doubt,” Faramir chuckled as he moved farther into the water, washing the dried mud from his skin. After a few moments he ducked into the water, swimming a little so that his entire body was immersed. Taking a breath, he dipped his head beneath the surface, rubbing his hair with his hands under the water to free it from the clumps of dirt. Finally he arose from the pool, his skin and hair glistening clean in the waning afternoon sun.
Aragorn had moved to the end the pool and stood beneath the falls, letting the water pour over his lean, muscular body. As he scrubbed his hair, he glanced at Eomer. “I suppose those scars came from doing battle with passing ice floes,” he remarked.
The King of Rohan finished wringing the water from his long locks and threw a scowl in his fellow sovereign’s direction. Like his two comrades, his body was marked with several battle scars, some very old. “These marks were won in honorable combat,” he declared, “with creatures a bit more lethal than chunks of frozen water.”
Faramir had been massaging his face vigorously with water, trying to get the last of the mud from his beard. He glanced over at his brother-in-law for a few moments, then frowned. “Did one of them bite you?”
Eomer looked at him sharply. “What?”
The other man pointed to an area on Eomer’s arm above his left elbow. “There. Those are bite marks, upper and lower jaw. Very faint, though.”
This seemed to cause Eomer some consternation. “Oh-that’s nothing.”
Aragorn, now spotless, waded over with a curious expression on his wet visage.
“Must have been a very *small* Orc,” the King of Gondor noted with a smile, sniffing from the water and wiping his nose with a swipe of his hand.
Eomer sighed, pursing his lips in irritation. “It wasn’t an Orc. It was…Eowyn.”
The eyes of his companions widened in surprise.
“*Eowyn* bit you?” said Aragorn.
Eomer became utterly exasperated. “It was a childish fight-I don’t even remember how it happened-she had a very strong bite for a little girl!”
Faramir chuckled. “She’s got a pretty strong bite for a woman, too.”
The other two men looked quickly at him, a bit more shocked than before. The smile slid completely from Faramir’s face as the realization sank in and his cheeks began to turn red.
“Oh. Uh, did I say that out loud…? Er. *cough* Um. Oh.”
After a few awkward moments, Aragorn grinned in amused empathy and said, “Perhaps we should finish our bath, wash our clothes, and set up our camp for the night, gentlemen. This water seems to have quite a relaxing effect on the tongue, and I possess a few scars whose origins I would rather you didn’t know about.”
Within a short amount of time, the three men had retrieved very wrinkled but reasonably clean and dry garments from their packs and clothed their now mud-free bodies. The dirty shirts and trousers were duly washed out and spread them over various rocks and branches to dry. As the twilight sky deepened into night, they regrouped to lay out their next movements.
“Hunting may be difficult in the darkness,” Eomer noted, glancing up at the sky. “Yet we may be fortunate and find some night game.”
Aragorn sat on a nearby rock with a smile, his loose shirt billowing with the movement. “Sit and rest, Eomer King,” he advised, pulling his pack onto his lap and opening it. “You as well, good Steward. My queenly wife has seen to our sustenance.”
Faramir watched with bright curiosity as he sat on a boulder next to the King, ruffling his long fair hair with his hands to hasten its drying. Eomer seated himself as well, scowling in slight confusion as his comrade reached into the bag.
Within moments Aragorn withdrew his hand from the pouch. He held a sizable square object, wrapped loosely in paper. It appeared to be a very large, thick cracker.
Faramir’s eyes widened at once. “Lembas bread!” he exclaimed with delight, a great smile crossing his face.
“Bread?” Eomer inquired, after a pause. “For dinner?”
Aragorn swiftly unwrapped the food, broke off a small corner of it and handed it to Faramir, who passed it to the King of Rohan.
“This is no mere baker’s loaf, my good brother-in-law,” Faramir assured him as Eomer took the piece and eyed it skeptically. “I have been reading about this fabled food of the Elves since I was a child. It has wondrous properties of nourishment; that will be all you need for at least a half-day.”
“Alas, Arwen had no mallorn leaves to properly wrap it,” Aragorn said as he gave Faramir another small piece, then took a bit for himself before wrapping up the remainder and replacing it into his pack.
“I’m sure we can dispense with ceremony in the wild,” said Faramir as he closely examined his piece. “I never thought I’d get a chance to taste this.” He bit his piece in half and chewed it thoughtfully. “Hmm. A bit saltier than I expected, but very good. Please convey our deepest thanks to the Queen.”
Aragorn shrugged and took a bite from his portion as well. “It is always difficult to reproduce the recipe exactly when one is not in the Elvish realm,” he noted as he munched. “It’s very close, however.”
Eomer looked at them both, shrugged and opened his mouth.
At that moment, Aragorn looked up at him quickly. “Oh, Eomer, I should tell you, don’t eat it all at-”
His words stopped abruptly when he saw that Eomer had put the entire piece into his mouth, and was chewing it while gazing at his fellow King with a puzzled countenance.
The former Ranger’s mouth twitched. “Oh. Ah, never mind. Just-try not to swallow it all at once. It will fill you up *very* quickly.”
Eomer continued to regard him somewhat oddly, but obeyed as best he could.
“I wonder if Eowyn could make these,” mused Faramir as he finished his piece. “It would come in very handy for long trips. She greatly enjoys herself in the kitchen, I’m sure she’d like something new to try.” He sat back, wiping his hands on his trouser legs and looking around. His gaze settled finally on his brother-in-law, who was looking decidedly uncomfortable.
“Was the bread not to your liking?” inquired Aragorn, studying Eomer with concern.
Eomer shook his head quickly. “It was fine,” he said in a strained voice. “Very good, I just…I feel as if I’ve eaten a whole roasted boar!”
His companions laughed a little.
“Much the same happened to me the first time I tried lembas bread,” admitted Aragorn. “My foster-father Elrond warned me not to have more than a bite, but being merely a child, I thought it was nothing more than a large sweetcake and ate almost half a piece before I-”
Suddenly he stopped, his entire body tensing. His comrades reacted in the same manner at the same moment, instantly alert, their eyes all meeting and exchanging a silent message of realization. In one identical motion, they all picked up their swords and stood, their eyes scanning the dark trees around them.
After a moment, Aragorn looked to the east, and began walking to the edge of the clearing. His comrades followed close behind him, their swords glinting in the starlight, their eyes steady, their expressions grave. Scarcely a sound was made by their stealthy footsteps as they crossed the grassy ground. Thunder rumbled in the distance; the air was still and heavy with the approaching storm.
Ten feet from the border of the trees, Aragorn stopped.
“We know of your presence,” he said loudly. “Face us and do battle!”
Then, from the depths of the shadowy woods, came a low, rough, heavily accented voice, uttering a single frustrated word.
All at once, there came a great crashing sound, and four large Orcs burst out of the trees, charging at the men, their swords flashing. Two attacked Aragorn, while their comrades busied themselves with Faramir and Eomer. Oaths, grunts and cries filled the air as the sleepy glade rang with the cacophony of fierce engagement.
Faramir found his opponent an even match. It had been a while since his ranger combat skills had been put to use, but he found that his instincts were as sharp and deadly as ever. He knew the Orc had the advantage of good sight in the darkness, and that the Orc was wearing armor while all that protected the Steward was a loose shirt and a pair of leggings. It took a good deal of graceful maneuvering to avoid the beast’s blade; despite a great amount of effort, the only damage the creature managed to inflict was a minor slice across Faramir’s stomach.
The slight wound only further stirred Faramir’s fighting blood, however, and very quickly he became as the Ranger Captain of old, assaulting his adversary with swift and brutal skill. The Orc lunged forward; Faramir parried, turned the blow aside, and lunged back, drawing dark blood upon his blade. The Orc charged him; Faramir sidestepped the attack with astounding speed, grasping the Orc’s sword arm and wrenching it sharply, gritting his teeth from the effort.
The creature squealed as his weapon fell from his thick-fingered grip, but before he could counter, Faramir drove his fist savagely into the back of the Orc’s skull. Stunned, the beast fell to the ground, but recovered quickly enough to grab his sword and spin around with the full intent of gutting the Steward. Before he could complete his turn, however, Faramir proved the faster, and the Orc found himself gasping his last with a Ranger sword cleaving his throat.
Faramir’s expression was wide-eyed with intense loathing as he met the Orc’s hate-filled dying gaze. At last, the creature gurgled and slumped sideways, and Faramir drew his sword from its throat as it fell. He shook himself, a bit disoriented after the frenzied exertion, but quickly collected his wits and went to the aid of his comrades.
Eomer found his enemy to be tenacious as well, and he was enjoying every moment of it. Like Faramir, the King of Rohan was clad in naught but loose clothing and had only his sword for protection, yet he fought as if in full battle gear with the host of the Rohirrim behind him. All thoughts of boring council meetings and stuffy court protocol fled his mind; here he was in his true element, and Eomer drove after the Orc with the gleeful ferocity of a born warrior unleashed.
The Orc lunged at Eomer with a cry; Eomer shouted even louder as he parried the assault and grappled with his beefy opponent. They met eye to eye for an instant, and Eomer glared into the creature’s face with an intense hatred he reserved for only his most bitter enemies. Finally he shoved the Orc away and attacked, raining blow after blow against the beast’s sword. They plunged across the grassy clearing, Eomer yelling Rohirric war cries as he struck out, the Orc stumbling backwards as fast as he could to avoid having his skull split open.
They plowed through the bushes and past the trees, leaves and twigs flying through the air in the ferocity of the offensive. Finally the Orc fell backwards over a small rock near the edge of the oasis, striking the ground with a heavy thud. Eomer pounced forward, thrusting his sword at the monster. At the last moment, his enemy squeaked and rolled away, the sword point barely catching a bit of his leather armor. Without pause, the Orc scrambled to his feet and darted away, running as fast as his feet would carry him onto the mud plain.
Eomer dashed to the border of the grassland, watching in mute horror as the Orc fled, slipping and splashing, across the flat. He hesitated, looking down at the muck in approximately the same loathing manner that he had eyed the Orc with a few moments before. But there was no help for it. Sighing, he gripped his sword tighter and ran after his adversary.
Thunder rumbled overhead once more, followed a few seconds later by pouring rain.
Despite the great care Eomer took in traversing the mud, he was soon once more covered in the thick substance; even the heavy rain failed to completely wash it away from his once-clean hair and clothes. As disadvantaged as he was, the heavy, clumsy Orc was even more hobbled, and Eomer had little difficulty in overtaking the beast and tackling him to the ground. They struggled in the mud for a few moments, until Eomer with a mighty cry ran the creature through.
Panting heavily, Eomer angrily whipped aside the streaming hair that was plastered over his eyes, glaring at the dead Orc as he climbed to his feet. Then, with no further thought bestowed on his fallen enemy, he whirled around and ran with splashing steps to rejoin Aragorn and Faramir against the remaining two Orcs. He was filthy again, and somebody was going to pay for it.
While Faramir and Eomer were dealing with their matters, Aragorn had his hands full with two equally enthusiastic opponents. The Orcs attacked him in tandem, hacking at him from both sides, their weapons a blur in the uncertain twilight.
Aragorn’s reply was as fierce as their assault; in no time, he shed the stately role of King and became Strider, the Ranger whom no Orc could best in battle. His defense was swift and effective; Anduril sang as it plied its deadly work against the onslaught, and in little time one Orc fell beneath Elendil’s mighty blade.
As the beast’s body fell to the sodden ground, its chest sliced open by Aragorn’s weapon, the surviving combatants fell back a few paces and glared at each other over the motionless corpse. Aragorn paused, his breathing heavy, blood trickling from cuts to his cheek and arms. It was his hope that the brute might surrender, and reveal the hiding place of the rest of the Orcs; it was their only hope of quickly ending the dangerous situation.
Lightning flashed, and the skies opened, yet still they stood, until with a roar the Orc lifted his weapon and struck out at the King.
With the ease of a warrior born, Aragorn blocked the blow, and they exchanged strike for strike until the small grove resounded with the noise of their battle. The huge Orc proved skilled with his blade and as determined as Aragorn to emerge victorious; any advantage gained by one would be quickly countered by the other, and the advantage exchanged. They quickly became soaked with rain and slicked with blood; neither cared. The ferocity of their efforts soon drove them out of the shelter of the grassy oasis and onto the barren flats; they scarcely noticed as the firm ground beneath their feet turned into the sloshing fields of mud. All that mattered was the battle, and which of them would live to tell of it.
Lightning split the sky, flashing from their swinging blades as they struck and counterstruck. Soaked with rain, streaked with blood, Aragorn barely noticed Faramir and Eomer coming up behind him, their swords at the ready. The Orc, suddenly realizing his trapped state, soon turned his attack to them as well, lending Aragorn a chance to breathe. The battle soon became brutally physical; despite being stabbed repeatedly, the creature refused to yield. Soon all four contestants were swathed in blood and mud, their clothes and hair sodden and streaming with water.
Finally Aragorn charged forward with a cry, smashing his sword against the Orc’s weapon with unequaled fury. The huge creature grunted, parried the blows, then squealed in rage as his blade was forced from his hand to spin off into the mud. He staggered and fell to his knees exhausted, his fists clenched, as Aragorn placed his sword’s point within an inch of the beast’s chest. Eomer and Faramir flanked him, their weapons also held on their defeated foe.
“Do you yield?” Aragorn panted, his eyes as hard as steel. He was soaked with rain, the blood from his wounds mingling with the water and mud now running in rivulets over his body and dripping thickly to the ground. Thunder rumbled faintly as the rain began to taper off.
The Orc glowered at him through hate-filled yellow eyes and snarled, but made no move.
“There are questions we need answers to,” Aragorn went on, “and if-”
He got no further, for at that moment the Orc let out a defiant roar and sprang forward, impaling himself on Aragorn’s sword.
“NO!” Aragorn cried, but the life left the eyes of the Orc as he slid backwards off the blade, landing with a heavy *splut* in the thick, soupy mud.
For a few moments, the only sound was the fading patter of the rain striking the ground as the three mud-soaked men stared in disappointment at the Orc, now silent forever. After a few moments, they exchanged weary looks of extreme frustration, then turned around as one man and trudged with heavy steps back to the cleansing waters of the oasis.