They traveled far that morning and afternoon, first crossing a good length of mud flats towards the rocky foothills of the southern mountains. A fine mist hung in the air, soaking them all, and the mud proved no less a challenge than it had before, but the men spent no strength in cursing it or their now-splattered clothing. Their eyes remained locked on the duty ahead, their minds united on one goal, and the unfriendly ground now seemed nothing more than a minor obstacle.
Soon they reached the sharp, uneven terrain of the lower mountains, and they tackled that with as much stalwart fortitude as the mud flats. Here the rocks were far more awkward to negotiate than before, with fewer flat areas and more sharply-angled boulders, all slick with moisture. A thick fog had developed in the warmth of the day, masking their vision for a good distance both before and behind them. The going became slower, but never faltered, as the warriors ascended to their destination.
Over all the treacherous ground, Boromir moved without so much as a single misplaced step, at times so far ahead of his comrades that they had to beckon him to slow his pace. He bore Faramir with exceeding care, sheltering his stricken brother from the light misting rain as much as he could and offering words of comfort and encouragement.
It was not long before the Steward’s younger son lost the strength to hang on to Boromir’s neck, and he spent the majority of the journey huddled down in his brother’s arms, his eyes riveted to the path before them. Now and then Faramir would lift his head and murmur something to Boromir, who would change his direction at once; then Faramir would settle back and continue watching, the dream playing before his eyes. Faramir was clearly exhausted, his face white and clammy with sweat, his body seized with trembling, but he consented to stop and rest only a few times. Even then, the young Steward would sleep for a mere ten minutes or so, then awake and insist on continuing. They were, he declared, very close.
Thus they journeyed most of the day, doused with mist, soaked with mud, and battered by rocks, until half of the afternoon was spent. At last they found themselves climbing up a long, gently sloping incline, where the rocks became much more flat and easily navigated. Here and there green shrubs appeared, growing larger as they neared the crest, which was lined with thick vegetation. They were not far from traveling into the mountains themselves.
Boromir had once more moved far ahead of them, his pace quickening as they neared the top. Aragorn eyed him sharply but dared not cry out to him, for it was probable that the Orcs were very close by now.
Thus it was that he could only watch as Boromir and Faramir went over the crest of the hill, into the thick bushes and trees half-shrouded in the fog, and vanished from his sight. Aragorn pushed on, Eomer at his side, keeping a careful watch for any trouble as they neared the top of the slope.
Within a few minutes, Eomer and Aragorn reached the crest. Here, the ground flattened out considerably, thick grass poking through the rocks and turning into scrub brush and mountain trees as they moved across the ground. Some twenty feet into the area, the way ahead was completely screened by growth; there appeared to be a wall of it, beyond which the land dropped away before rising steeply once more into the mountainside, barely visible through the heavy mist.
Close to the edge of the drop, they found Boromir, calmly sitting beneath one of the trees with his long legs stretched out and crossed at the ankles, patiently waiting for them. Beside him lay Faramir, curled up with his head on Boromir’s lap, sound asleep.
Swiftly, Aragorn knelt down next to Faramir and laid a hand on his brow. A frown crossed his face; the fever had gotten worse, and the Steward was now utterly wearied. He seemed to be sleeping peacefully, however, and Aragorn gave Boromir a look of mute promise: When their business was done here, Faramir would be their entire concern.
Boromir answered that look with a nod of understanding, then sighed and casually lifted one hand, curling it into a fist and jabbing behind him with his thumb at something over his shoulder while moving his glance between the two Kings. Eomer peered at Aragorn, then stepped forward and carefully parted the leaf-strewn branches before him, just enough to see what lay beyond their masking blades.
Before him spread a large valley, round in shape and several hundred feet long and wide, cut deep into the mountain ground. Beneath its tree-crowned rim sloped more barren ground, finally becoming almost flat and scattered with small rocks, sparse brush, and what looked like several dozen Orcs.
It was clear even from a first glance that this was the well-established base of the Orcs’ marauding operations. One area was piled high with stolen armor, weapons, gold, and other goods, currently being sorted by at least ten of the creatures. On other parts of the camp, Orcs were occupying themselves with eating, sleeping, maintaining their weapons, and fighting between themselves over the choicest of the bounty. Two particularly large, well-armed Orcs were huddled in one part of the valley, poring over maps, likely planning the next assault. None of them noticed their audience.
Having joined Eomer, Aragorn quickly made a count, then indicated to the Rohan King to depart.
As Aragorn stepped away, he motioned to Boromir, then moved out of the oasis and several feet back down the mountainside, behind a sheltering rock some distance away from the rim of trees. Eomer soon joined him, followed by Boromir, bearing his slumbering brother carefully in his arms.
“Well,” whispered Boromir, seating himself and settling Faramir as comfortably as he could, “it seems as if we’ve found the Orcs. What is our course of action now?”
“We are far too few to defeat them ourselves,” observed Aragorn, crouching and rubbing his mud-streaked chin. “There appear to be almost fifty. At least they did not bother to post a sentry.”
Eomer snorted. “Of course they would not; what madmen would venture into this place to find them?” He paused, then leaned closer to Aragorn, his voice taut. “I would say we must return to Minas Tirith as swiftly as we can. There we can plan a trap for them, now that we know where they are.” He looked over to where Faramir dozed against Boromir’s chest. “Most importantly, Lord Faramir needs aid, now that he has selflessly given his all for our mission.”
Aragorn studied the pale face of his Steward and nodded, his lips pressing together in concern. “That is our most urgent concern now,” he agreed. “We must only hope that the Orcs do not-”
He stopped suddenly, his head whipping around to stare down the fog-shrouded mountainside, his green eyes widening.
Eomer frowned, uneasy at his abrupt anxiousness. “What is it?”
Slowly Aragorn stood, his hand on his sword, still staring down the mountainside. Eomer followed his motions, getting to his feet as well with his hand on his weapon, peering down past the misty rocks and sparse grass. Behind him, Boromir remained where he was, but his hold on Faramir tightened into a protective embrace.
From within the heavy mist below them there could now be seen the uncertain shape of many figures moving up the side of the hill, rapidly approaching their hiding place. It looked enough to be a small army.
“Should we retreat up the hill?” wondered Boromir, peering at the mysterious arrivals.
“They are not Orcs,” said Eomer, as the figures drew closer. “They are far too small, and move without a sound over the rocks.”
“They must be…” murmured Aragorn, “but…it is impossible…”
The first of the figures stepped from the mist, looked up at the small group, and waved.
Aragorn gasped, hoarsely whispering to himself to keep from shouting out in surprise.
As Boromir and Eomer’s eyes doubled in size, they saw that it was, indeed, Legolas lithely crossing the rocks towards them, his long golden hair flowing behind him, his Elven form dancing gracefully from place to place until he was upon them. His ageless face wore an expression of great relief; in his hand was his magnificent Galadhrim bow, on his back a full quiver of arrows.
Behind Legolas, there emerged from the fog now an entire small army of Elven warriors, all armed to the teeth and moving with silent steps to where they stood. Aragorn stared, dumbfounded; the hills seemed alive with Elves.
“Well met, my old friend!” Aragorn gasped, holding out his arms to the woodland Elf. “What…How in the name of Eru did you find us?”
“Arwen said you had come to this land,” said Legolas, reaching out and clasping Aragorn’s extended arms in greeting. “We thought you might want some help, and have been tracking you for two days.”
“I have always heard of the astounding abilities of the Elves, but this must defy belief,” said Eomer in a mystified tone, coming down to greet Legolas. “You tracked us across miles of mud and rock?”
“Yes,” replied Legolas with a proud smile. “Well-it wasn’t easy, and I will admit we did lose the way a few times, but it became faster once you entered the mountains.”
Aragorn frowned as something occurred to him. “You followed us all that way?”
Legolas glanced at him. “Yes.”
Aragorn didn’t move. “Over all those miles and miles of mud?”
Now Legolas scowled, puzzled, and shrugged a little. “Yes, of course. Why?”
There was no reply from Aragorn as he looked from Elf to Elf. Not a single one of them had a spot of mud anywhere on their clothes or skin, save for the soles of their soft boots.
“Um,” Aragorn said finally, “didn’t any of you, um…fall? At all?”
Legolas looked very bewildered. “No.”
There was a heavy silence for a moment as Aragorn stared at the impeccable army of Elves, a variety of emotions swirling through his mind. At length, he sighed. “Oh. Very well, never mind, just was wondering. Um…”
Legolas looked around. “Is Lord Faramir not with you?”
“He is with Boromir,” said Aragorn quickly, taking Legolas’ shoulder and gesturing behind him without looking to where the two sat on the rock.
The Elf’s eyes grew wide now, and he bent to look past Aragorn’s shoulder, then frowned and turned his blue eyes back to his old friend. “Boromir? Aragorn, has this land made you mad? Boromir is dead.”
“Yes, but-” began Aragorn, looking back to the rock. His words stopped at once.
Faramir lay on the ground beside the rock, snugly wrapped in the Elven cloak and still soundly sleeping.
Boromir was nowhere to be seen.
Astounded, Aragorn looked over at Eomer, who seemed likewise perplexed. They both began to look about them; there was no sign of the ghost.
“What…he was just here…” muttered Eomer as he turned his gaze in all directions. “He would not have left his brother…”
Some of the Elves looked puzzled, and began to look around as well, although none of them knew who they were looking for.
Legolas was keenly studying Aragorn. “My friend…”
“No, no,” said Aragorn quickly, holding up one hand as he scanned the area. “Boromir was here, as a spirit…”
Legolas sighed. “It was the pipeweed Pippin gave you, wasn’t it?” he asked quietly.
Aragorn gave him an exasperated glance. “*No*,” he replied sharply.
The Elf responded with a shake of his head. “He *warned* you about it, you know…”
“My apologies for that,” said Boromir, appearing suddenly not three feet from where Legolas was standing.
“Aiiiii!” cried the Elf, stumbling (gracefully) back, his blue eyes enormous. Within a space of a few seconds, he had an arrow nocked and aimed at the apparition’s heart, his expression one of complete bafflement.
Boromir noticed him and smiled. “Ah, greetings, Legolas! It is wonderful to see you again, although the circumstances are a bit wanting.”
“It is all right, Legolas,” said Eomer, stepping to his friend’s side. “He is not evil; there is no need for your bow.”
Very slowly, Legolas lowered his weapon, his eyes fixed on the ghost. “How is this possible?” he whispered.
“It is quite a long story, I fear,” Boromir answered, “and I’m sure my kingly friends here will tell it to you in when we have leisure time for talk.” He turned to Aragorn. “I regret having to leave you so abruptly, Aragorn, but I thought that as it appears we may have a battle on our hands, you might need some assistance. I trust you recall the Army of the Dead?”
A blast of cold air struck the group, and the Elves reeled at the sight of the ghostly warriors who suddenly materialized beside Boromir. Their forms were lean and haggard, their bodies clad in ancient armor thousands of years old. Deadly weapons were clasped in their grisly hands, and their faces wore the look of men eager for battle, their appearance shifting between men of flesh and mere skeletons. An eerie green glow flickered over their bodies, similar to the one that covered Boromir, but far more intense.
Aragorn gasped, astonished. “The Army of the Dead!” he repeated in a hoarse murmur.
One of the formerly cursed warriors bowed to Aragorn. “We have come to serve you once again, Heir of Isildur.”
The King of Gondor blinked as he looked over the soldiers, then licked his lips, his brows knitting a bit. “Um, Boromir?”
Boromir looked over at him. “Hm?”
“There’s only four of them.”
There were, indeed, only four of the ectoplasmic soldiers, a far cry from the original army that had numbered several hundred.
“Ah. Yes,” Boromir replied quickly, glancing over at the four ghosts. “Well…it’s rather hard to get the whole army together on such short notice, you understand. Even with time not working the same way over there, it took me a while to find these four. Had to look in every Spirit Realm pub I could think of.”
“Yes, it’s not as if we’re at your beck and call all the time any more, you know,” offered one of the warriors, looking at Aragorn.
“Most of the fellows, they’re really enjoying finally finding some peace and relaxation,” added a second ghost. “You won’t get them back here again, no, sir.”
“We only came because Boromir said he’d buy us all a round when we got back,” the third spirit piped up.
The fourth ghost snorted. “Speak for yourselves, mates,” he scoffed, shaking his sword. “I’ve been longing to get a go at them Orcs again. I mean, eternal peace is great, but it does tend to get a little boring at times, you know?”
“Besides,” continued Boromir, looking back at Aragorn, “it’s not like I had a great fancy sword I could wave and get hundreds of dead soldiers to follow me, as you did. I had to earn their service the old-fashioned way – by promising to get them drunk.”
“And don’t think we’ll forget,” warned one of the ghosts mildly, pointing at him with his sword for emphasis.
Boromir nodded at him, then turned and lay his hand on Aragorn’s shoulder. “Fear not, Aragorn, I am sure we have enough force to rid our land of these creatures.”
The other man’s green eyes flashed. “Then let us make ready to do so,” he said in a low, lethal voice.
With a nod, Boromir stepped away and returned to his brother’s side. Legolas followed him, kneeling on one side of Faramir while Boromir sat on the other. The young Steward was still sleeping, and looked no better than before.
“What ails him?” inquired Legolas, his tone distressed.
“Poison,” said Eomer angrily as he walked up behind them. “We fought some Orcs a few days ago, and one of them bore an envenomed blade.”
“Do any of your people bear healing medicines?” Aragorn asked hopefully.
But Legolas shook his head, regret plain on his features. “We had little time to prepare; we left Minas Tirith as soon as we learned of your mission,” he said in response. “There are a few herbs of minor effect in my pack, but nothing to combat poison.”
Boromir sighed, one hand on Faramir’s shoulder. He lowered his gaze for a moment, then raised his head, meeting the eyes of his friends with an expression hard as steel.
“Then, gentlemen,” he said in a quiet, deadly tone, “I believe it is time for battle.”
Aragorn looked at Legolas. “Go with Eomer up to the rim of the valley; the Orcs are camped below. We shall take them by surprise, and win the day.”
Legolas nodded, and soon he and his Elf army were moving noiselessly up the slopes to the summit, led by Eomer.
Aragorn stood and gave his attention to the four ghostly soldiers. “Are you under my command? I have nothing to offer you for your service today, except my gratitude.”
They looked at each other, and after a few moments one of them turned to him and nodded. “As long as we can help you destroy these filthy Orcs and get a nice cold ale out of it,” he said, “we’re all yours.”
Aragorn inclined his head in thanks, then dropped his gaze to Boromir. The spirit wore a solemn expression on his face, and finally stood.
“I will not leave Faramir,” he said simply. “But you know my sword is yours, should the battle come our way.”
“I have no doubt of that,” was Aragorn’s earnest reply. “This seems a safe distance. Stay here with your brother, and I will do all I can to make sure he is not imperiled.”
With those words, and a hasty farewell clap on the shoulder, Aragorn turned and hastened up the hill to the waiting battle.
Boromir watched him go, then heard a small noise at his feet. Looking down, he saw Faramir’s eyes blinking blearily open, squinting in confusion at the King’s retreating figure.
“Lie still,” urged the ghost, crouching beside Faramir and placing a hand on his arm.
“I’ve been still long enough, I think,” replied the younger man with a cough, wiping his eyes. “What is happening?”
“Well, let’s see,” his brother answered, settling down. “We’ve found the Orcs, thanks to you and your dream, Legolas has appeared with a squadron of Elven archers, I managed to find four members of the Army of the Dead who weren’t too busy enjoying the afterlife to come and help us, and now we’re preparing to rid this land of those Orcs for good and all.” He paused. “Yes…yes, I believe that’s all.”
Faramir sat up very carefully, rubbing his flushed face. “Legolas is here?”
“May the Valar bless him,” he muttered gratefully, shaking his head. “I do wish I could have seen his face when he saw you.”
Boromir chuckled. “It was rather amusing, poor fellow. At least one of you had the good grace to scream! He and his brave archers are with Aragorn and Eomer now. This business will soon be concluded.”
Faramir sighed and nodded, gingerly easing himself over to sit with his back against a large rock. His face was very white. “That will be a vast relief,” he gasped, as he reached down and very slowly pulled his sword from its scabbard.
His ghostly brother frowned. “And what do you suppose you’re doing?”
The younger man was panting now, but he looked over at Boromir, a faint smile playing on his pale lips. “My dear brother,” he said between breaths, laying the weapon across his lap, “I am not going to lie on the ground like a sack of meal should we be overrun. I may not be able to stand or fight, but I believe I have enough strength to lift a sword and drive it home if the need arises. At this time, we need every blade.”
Boromir eyed him steadily, pride and concern mixing on his face.
Faramir looked up the hill and shrugged. “Besides,” he added, “if one of them gets close enough, I might just be able to get ill again on him. It would serve them right, after all.”
His brother nodded with a smile, clasped Faramir’s shoulder, and followed his gaze up the hill, as they both sat and waited to see what would happen next.
In almost utter silence, Aragorn, Eomer, the Elves, and the Dead Soldiers crept up to the rim of the valley and surrounded the Orcs’ campsite. None of the creatures below gave them any notice, being far too occupied with eating, sorting out their purloined goods, and finding excuses to harass each other.
The Elves noiselessly armed their bows, while the two Kings and the Dead gripped their swords. The ghostly warriors eyed the unsuspecting Orcs with particular relish, as if they could not wait to go into battle again.
Finally Aragorn stepped forward a little ways, glanced over at Legolas and Eomer, and nodded. The time had come.
The Orcs went on with their dirty business, gleefully planning their next marauding foray out onto the Gondorian plains, when their peace was shattered by a cry from above, delivered in a voice whose authority could not be questioned.
“ORCS OF MORDOR!”
Startled, they all uttered various Orc expletives and looked up in the direction of the sound, to the rim of their sheltering valley.
At the lip of the rim stood Aragorn, the bright blade of Anduril flashing in his hand. He was regarding the Orcs below with a lethal expression.
As one group, the fifty Orcs howled in shock and anger, and there was a loud clattering as they grabbed their various swords, knives and bows and moved to overwhelm the lone figure.
At that moment, a gentle rustling came among the thick trees lining the valley rim, and thirty Elven warriors emerged from their cover, some aiming their drawn bows at the beasts below, others bearing their sharp Elven blades. On each end of the line of Elves stood two glowing, green spectral soldiers, all four unable to stifle anticipatory chuckles of glee.
Amazed, the Orcs stopped in their tracks and stared, apparently sizing up their situation.
“Heed my words!” cried Aragorn, his clear voice ringing across the wide valley. “Your days of thievery are over. I will give you one chance to save your lives. Lay down your weapons, or-”
The rest of his words were lost as the Orcs surged forward, shrieking and brandishing their deadly implements. Orcish arrows filled the air, all swooping straight for them.
Aragorn glanced at Eomer. “That *never* works,” he sighed with resignation, and brandishing Anduril, he leapt into the fray. Beside him, the Elven bows sang as they sped their arrows into the Orcs.
Eomer shrugged, not terribly disappointed, and with a Rohirric battle cry on his lips, he led the Elves and the Dead down into the valley to meet the charging foe.
Within moments, the valley dissolved into chaos, the air rent with the coarse, ugly grunts of the Orcs, Elven chants of war, and the enthusiastic shouts of the Dead.
Eomer plowed into Orc after Orc, abandoning more graceful techniques of battle for ruthlessly efficient brutality. He would cross swords with one, and perhaps sustain a cut or two, but the end result was always the same: the Orc would fall dead to the ground, his head hacked off, his chest split open, or his throat sliced in two. Infuriated by the poisoning of Faramir, the attacks on his people, and the endless slogging around in the mud, Eomer’s fury was not to be denied, and many of the day’s Orc fatalities were marked to the glory of Rohan.
Legolas and the Elves proved themselves to be just as lethal as the enraged Eomer, if not nearly as sanguinary. With balletic grace the swordsman engaged their opponents, pushing back brute strength with deadly elegance. There was little straining or groaning, merely the smoothest of sword strokes, and an Orc would collapse, black blood gushing from the precisely inflicted mortal wound.
At the top of the rim, the archers, led by Legolas, poured wave after wave of arrows into the Orcs while doing their best to dodge the cruder missiles sent back up at them. Soon many Elves bore bleeding cuts and gashes from near misses by the flying arrows, but they held firm, Legolas doing his best to locate and cut down the most important-looking Orcs. In the churning mass of battle below, however, it was difficult to discern shape from shape.
It was not hard to find the green forms of the Dead moving swiftly among the writhing, hacking crowd, plying their ghostly swords to great effect, laughing and shouting with fervor at the Orcs as they took them down. It was within their power to take the lives from their enemy with a mere touch, but it quickly became clear that they preferred to perform their task in a far more physical matter. Glowing green blades forged two ages ago swung through the air, their owners delighted at the chance to engage their ancient opponents once more.
Through all of this melee plunged Aragorn, acting every inch the Ranger of old as he plied Anduril repeatedly against the encroachers. The ancient sword was soon slick with black blood, and after every kill Aragorn would look quickly around, trying to see how the tide of battle was turning. At length he arrives near the back of the camp, close to the mountainside, where the campfires were burning, the air filled with acrid smoke.
There was the table where the Orcs had laid out the maps of Gondor, planning their next raid. Outraged, Aragorn knocked the table over, scattering its contents. No sooner had he done this than he was accosted by a large, heavily armored Orc, who bore several human scalps upon his belt. It was plain by his heavy armor and swaggering demeanor that he was the leader of the larcenous creatures.
They crossed swords at once.
“You did well to find us, human filth,” the Orc growled, “but you won’t be leaving this valley with your life!”
The weapons crashed against each other as the combatants fell to battle. The Orc was large and very strong, and as he and Aragorn hacked at each other, it became plain that they were evenly matched. Aragorn’s experience and agility proved a balancing factor against his foe’s brute power. The valley resounded with the crashing blows the Orc rained against Aragorn’s blade; Aragorn soon learned that the Orc was too weighed down in his armor to move very fast, and acted accordingly, skillfully dodging several potentially mortal strikes.
Back and forth they surged through the small area, now hammering away with their swords, now grappling with each other in a close and deadly struggle. The advantage shifted several times; at length, they found themselves clasped in a deadly embrace, each warrior clutching the other in a contest of force, staring with savage hatred into the eyes of the other, oblivious to the chaos around them.
Aragorn was trembling, covered with sweat and blood, wearied from the struggle but determined not to yield. He was just about to make his move when the Orc let out a howl and threw Aragorn backwards, sending him towards the fire that burned nearby.
Wrenching himself desperately, Aragorn fell to one side of the roaring blaze, crashing into the pile of dried leaves and grasses being used for kindling. He sat up quickly, the heat from the fire singing his hair, in time to see the frustrated Orc charging at him, sword raised. Swiftly, Aragorn gathered a handful of smoldering ashes and flung them into the Orc’s face, ignoring the burning pain in his hand as he did so.
The Orc’s shrieks changed to cries of surprise and pain as he staggered back, wiping quickly at the hot ash clinging to his tough skin. Aragorn leapt to his feet, sword in hand, bits of grass and leaves stuck to his wet clothing. His eyes cleared, the creature glared at the Gondor King and jumped at him once more, the two enemies exchanging a few more blows until Aragorn, finding the right moment, executed a perfect turn and cut the Orc’s head completely away from his body.
As the head and body collapsed to the ground in two different directions, Aragorn exhausted no time in giving the dead Orc so much as a parting glance. Instead, he hastened back into the fray, hoping that the rest of the Orcs would be subdued swiftly now that their captain was dead.
By this time, the battle had turned in favor of Gondor and Rohan. The Orcs had fought viciously, and inflicted many wounds, but soon it became clear that the forces of Men would win the day. Seeing this, three of the Orcs decided that being slain on the field of battle was an honor they would rather leave to others, and found a way to escape the valley without attracting the attention of the occupied soldiers.
On the slopes of the hill outside the valley, Boromir and Faramir listened to the sounds of battle and waited anxiously.
“I wonder how we are faring,” murmured Faramir after a while, his voice thin and anxious. He was still sitting up against the rock, but his face was white and covered with sweat, his shoulders drooping with weariness.
Boromir crouched by his side, hands clasped. “I wager we shall know soon enough,” he sighed, peering keenly at the misty trees, his brow knit with concern.
Suddenly the three Orcs appeared at the edge of the trees and started stumbling down the hill, obviously eager to get far away from the fighting.
“Oh,” Boromir said, watching them run, “perhaps we should just ask those Orcs.”
Faramir eyed them, frowning. “Somehow I doubt they’ll be forthcoming.” He paused, then looked at his brother. “We can’t let them get away; they may harry us during our return journey, or return with more of their kind.”
Boromir’s lip twitched and he threw a firm glance at Faramir. “I will not leave you while the battle rages,” he said.
The younger man licked his lips. “You won’t have to,” he said quietly. “I have an idea.” As the Orcs ran down the hill, they looked wildly around, trying to see if anyone was coming after them. Their attention was abruptly taken by the sound of a loud, human moan, and they stopped in their tracks, skidding a little on the rocky ground.
“Hold on,” said one, a skinny creature with a long nose and protruding teeth as he located the source of the noise. A smile spread across his repulsive face. “Looks like they left one behind.”
The other two followed his gaze, and saw that there was, indeed, a man lying some forty feet away, his back to a rock, a sword across his legs.
After a pause, and looking behind them to make sure they were unobserved by man or Orc, they began making their way over to where the human lay, each Orc grinning at the unexpected good fortune.
“Not surprised,” grunted the second Orc, a shorter, rounder figure whose wart-covered head was completely bald. “He’s on his last legs, this one. Look at ‘im!”
The human was lying motionless, glaring at the Orcs through his straggling, sweat-dampened hair, the dark locks stark against his pale face. He was breathing heavily, sweat beading on every exposed surface of skin.
“Least they just left ‘im behind ‘stead o’ killin’ him,” chortled the last Orc, his hefty frame wobbling as he strode closer to the human. “That means we can ‘ave some fun with ‘im, an’ make it look like we was fightin’ instead o’ runnin’.”
They were twenty feet away now.
“So,” the round Orc said in a very casual manner, “what do you say, boys? Cut his throat open and let ‘im bleed for a bit?”
“Nah,” the skinny Orc sneered, “that ain’t no fun. I say we ties ‘im up, takes him out to the flats an’ throws him into the mud. He can drown real slow like.” He laughed.
They were drawing closer very slowly, clearly enjoying the anticipation and making sure their victim heard every word.
“You fellas got no imagination,” the stout Orc growled, studying Faramir very closely. “I say we takes his scalp for the Captain’s belt, cuts his belly open, slits his throat, an’ then throws him in the mud to drown. That’ll please the captain an’ give us some good laughs, too!”
This course was instantly agreed on, and the three Orcs advanced, chuckling with glee and brandishing their weapons.
“That sound good t’you, maggot?” the skinny Orc said with a wicked cackle, looking at the sickly human. The man said nothing, still glowering at them with his fever-bright blue eyes.
“Quiet one, ain’t he?” chortled the round Orc, smirking. They were ten feet away now. “You don’t say much now, pink-skin, but you’ll be howlin’ soon enough. We’ll have you screamin’ to wake the dead!”
Suddenly they found their way blocked by another human, a tall, richly dressed warrior with golden hair who chose that moment to appear and thrust his sword clean through the round Orc’s chest.
The other two Orcs leapt back with cries of horrified surprise.
“Oh,” said the warrior in an even voice, looking at the dumbfounded Orcs as the lifeless body of their comrade dropped to the ground, “we dead are plenty awake, thank you. Care to join us?”
Astonished, the Orcs let loose with an enraged howl and charged, trampling their companion’s body in an effort to get to their human prey.
While the skinny Orc leapt atop the newcomer, the other ran around him and made a dash for the ailing human.
“No fair taking the easy one!” shrieked the skinny Orc, but it was too late, and he soon had his hands full trying to subdue the tall warrior.
The stout Orc ignored his comrade completely, trotting up to the pale man with a grin at how simple this was going to be. His prey still sat motionless, eying his approach, sword held in one limp hand across his lap.
The creature guffawed as he rushed up, lifting his blade. “Looks like I got you all to mys-GURRRRKKKKK!”
He had not been two feet away when the sickly human shot to his knees, his apparently lethargic frame suddenly invigorated as he raised his sword and drove it deep into the Orc’s stomach. The man’s entire being seemed to come alive with the motion, his body trembling from the effort, his eyes wide and blazing, his teeth gritted, his white face grimacing in an expression of righteous anger.
The Orc gurgled, shocked, and fell over dead, his last look one of annoyed disappointment.
Faramir released his grip on his sword as soon as the Orc began to fall, slumping back himself against the rock even as his foe tumbled to the earth. The energy born of battle had left him now, and he could do nothing but lie against the rock, shaking, covered with cold sweat, his chest heaving as he gasped for air. Blinking as he fought back the dizziness assailing him, Faramir glanced over, eager to see how his brother was faring, but not overly concerned. Being already dead, Boromir held a distinct advantage.
The two had been battling savagely, Boromir looking behind him to make sure Faramir was all right before turning his complete attention to his opponent. Time and again the Orc charged him, cutting and slashing, trying to get around him, and growing increasingly irritated that none of his efforts seemed to be having the slightest effect. Boromir was not growing tired, or wounded, or discouraged, nor did he seem to particularly mind when the Orc finally managed to plunge his sword clean through the Gondorian warrior’s chest.
At this, Boromir staggered back, and the Orc grinned triumphantly, waiting to see his enemy crumple to the ground. He became more than a little confused, however, when Boromir simply pulled the sword out, tossed it far behind him, then turned to face the Orc again, utterly unscathed.
The Orc’s jaw dropped. “Um…you…that…er…”
Boromir smiled and held the point of his weapon to the Orc’s throat. “We can go on like this all day, but I am a very impatient man, and have far more important matters to attend to,” he said in a low and menacing voice. “Surrender!”
In response, the Orc staggered back several feet and drew a dagger from his hip.
“Never!” he cried, and ran forward.
Perturbed, Boromir sighed and lifted his sword once more, but before the Orc got close enough for them to engage, the creature was suddenly impaled with at least fifteen arrows, all fired from above.
As the Orc choked and fell over sideways, Boromir gaped at him in surprise, then looked up to the crest of the hill. There stood Legolas flanked by several Elven archers, all with empty bows and grim, satisfied smiles. Aragorn and Eomer emerged from their midst and began to make their way quickly down the slope to him.
Boromir gave them a look of slight irritation as he turned and hastened back to Faramir. “You could have at least let me kill him,” he mumbled to Aragorn as the King of Gondor drew near. “You should have heard the vile things they were going to do to my brother.”
“All of the Orcs have paid for their misdeeds now,” Aragorn assured him as they strode quickly across the rocks. “We have won the day, and lost none of our number. How is Faramir?”
They reached the rock where Faramir sat, one arm draped over the rock for support, his head bent down and bobbing slightly as he gasped for breath. At their approach, Faramir’s eyes opened partway, and he greeted them with a wan smile.
“Faramir is still alive, my King,” he informed his sovereign in a faltering voice, “although he feels as if he fallen down all seven levels of Minas Tirith.”
Boromir and Aragorn knelt quickly beside him, while Eomer stood behind them. As Boromir lifted his arms, Faramir slumped gratefully into them, allowing himself to be supported with no further argument.
“For Eru’s sake, don’t talk,” chided Boromir in a worried voice, settling his brother more comfortably in his arms. “You’ve already used too much of your strength spearing that Orc.”
“Ah, but it was worth it,” mumbled the young Steward with a slight smile. He sighed. “But now that our task is done, I will consent to your coddling.” “For that I am most grateful,” said Aragorn as he began to open Faramir’s shirt to inspect his wound, “for I will not be able to continue my reign without my Steward, no matter how stubborn he may be.”
Faramir opened his eyes a bit more and looked up at Boromir. “Alas for you, my Liege, I had an excellent tutor in that particular skill.”
Boromir smiled fondly.
“The trait has served both of you well,” the Gondorian King replied, lifting the bandage on Faramir’s stomach carefully, “so it is a peculiarity I will gladly endure.” He replaced the bandage, eying Faramir with a solemn expression. “The wound is no better, nor worse. You must fully rest now, and save your strength. We shall make camp here tonight, and begin our journey home tomorrow.”
Faramir nodded with a weary sigh. “Very well,” he murmured, before looking up at Aragorn. “Did all of us survive the battle, truly?”
“Aye,” replied the King, retying the laces on Faramir’s shirt. “There are minor wounds, but none lost their lives.”
“Hm.” A faint smile touched Faramir’s lip. He looked at Aragorn’s grass-covered sleeve, his brows knitting a bit. “You seem to have taken something of a tumble, though,” he noted.
Aragorn glanced at his foliage-spotted clothes and laughed, brushing at the bits of leaves and grass. “A small shortcut through the Orc’s kindling,” he said lightly. “A bit messy, but not as awful as the fate he intended me to…suffer…”
He ceased speaking, gazing at something on his hand, his countenance taking on a sudden look of amazement. His head then whipped around to look up the hill, and before any could ask, Aragorn leapt to his feet and began running up the slope to the rim of the valley. Behind him, the little group around the rock gaped after him, confused. By the time Eomer and Legolas began running after him, Aragorn had already pushed through the knot of Elves and disappeared into the valley.
As the man and Elf crested the rim and began descending into the vale, they scanned the valley, looking for the errant King. Below them spread the carnage of the battle: some fifty dead Orcs, and the four Dead Warriors, making sure every one of their foes had truly been killed.
One of the Dead eyed them casually as they ran across the ground. “He’s over there,” he said in a calm tone, pointing to the rear of the camp before going on with his task.
They found Aragorn near the Orc’s fire pit, hastily picking through the scattered remnants of the Orc’s kindling grass. As Eomer and Legolas ran up, he lifted his head, then held out something in his hand to them.
“Here,” panted Aragorn, dropping a bit of something green into each of their palms, “look around for this, there must be more here.”
Legolas studied it and gasped. “Athelas!”
Aragorn nodded and went back to his work, intently combing the dried grass and leaves. “The Orcs were drying it, using it for kindling,” he said, pulling some more bits of it out and setting it into a small pile he had already formed. “I scarcely believe they brought it with them, they must have found it here.”
Eomer let out a huge sigh of relief, a smile lighting his blood-streaked features. “Thank the Valar for your short journey through the Orc’s grass pile,” he said, and he and Legolas set out at once to search the valley’s greenery.
“Yes,” muttered Aragorn to himself with a smile as he sorted out the healing herb, “my heart is most thankful for it. My rear end may be another matter.”
The sun was setting over the hillside as the warriors finished setting up their camp for the evening. Few wanted to rest in the valley previously occupied by the Orcs, so a suitable place had been found along the tree-lined rim, a site covered with grass and sheltering trees, wide enough to accommodate all. A spring was discovered near the edge of the valley, allowing for the slaking of thirst and the cleansing of wounds.
Down below, the Orc remains had been disposed of, and the stolen goods gathered into piles for a future expedition to sort out and return to their proper kingdoms. Now only a few Elves walked among the ruins, charged with making certain that all was accomplished, and that the valley would return to its natural state of peace and beauty.
Eomer and Legolas had been successful in their search, and there was soon plenty of fresh athelas on hand. At the campsite, Aragorn had quickly prepared the athelas, and Faramir had been the recipient of his first treatment by the time the red-gold rays of sunset began to creep down the hills. He lay now on a particularly soft patch of grass, covered with a blanket provided from the pack of one the Elves, his head pillowed as before on Boromir’s folded cloak. Still very weak and pale, he was obliged to simply be still and observe, as he watched his brother, along with Eomer and Aragorn, say farewell to the Soldiers of the Dead.
“Now don’t you forget,” one of the Dead was warning Boromir with a smile, “we’ll be waitin’ back at the pub for you!”
“It will be my first task upon my return,” promised the Son of Gondor, clapping him on the arm. “My thanks to you all.”
“And you certainly have mine as well,” added Aragorn. “Isildur could surely say nothing against you men now.”
One of the dead grinned. “Say,” he mused, “perhaps this will be good enough for a round of drinks from *him* as well!”
“Well, go track him down and find out!” urged Boromir with a laugh, slapping the ghost on the shoulder. “But don’t let him buy you the best ale, because that will be coming from me.”
The ghosts nodded and waved, and as they vanished from sight, they were wrapped in an animated discussion with each other over this latest prospect.
Eomer shook his head. “They certainly do like that ale,” he noted, eying the place where the Dead had stood.
“Well, it’s very *good* ale,” said Boromir simply, walking back to sit beside his brother.
The Rohan king nodded. “I’ve no doubt,” he said in agreement, turning and joining Boromir. Aragorn walked behind them, his expression pensive. “That was an excellent idea of yours, to enlist their aid.”
Boromir shrugged. “What’s the use of being a spirit if you can’t take advantage of it when needed?” he replied, before looking down at his brother, who was still watching them. “Speaking of doing things when needed, *you* should be asleep. Close those eyes of yours, or I’ll fetch Mother and have her give you a proper lecture on resting when you’re told.”
Faramir gave him a drowsy smile. “I hardly need Mother for lectures, with all of you around,” he murmured, heaving a sigh. “And I have been sleeping for hours now. I detest lying here when there is so much to attend to.”
Aragorn sat on a nearby rock, smiling slightly. “Perhaps my Steward will accept an order from his King? I do not want to have to answer to Lady Eowyn if you return home too weary for her welcome, so I am prepared to take royal measures to protect myself.”
“The King of Rohan is willing to involved himself as well,” said Eomer, sternly studying his brother-in-law.
Faramir gave him a good-natured scowl. “I am not under *your* authority, Eomer King.”
“Perhaps not,” replied the warrior, leaning back against a tree and folding his arms, “but I am able to make treaties with whomever I please. Must the King of Gondor and I issue a joint edict?”
Boromir leant close to Faramir’s ear. “As a man under no earthly power, I suppose I have no right to voice an opinion in this matter,” he murmured, “but I’d advise the Steward of Gondor to relent, before he causes an international incident.”
His brother sighed and looked at Aragorn. “So my King commands?”
“Yes, and your friend and healer even more so,” Aragorn replied firmly, smiling. “Fear not, what must be done here will be done, and when we return home, there will still be work ahead for both of us.”
Faramir nodded, an expression of resignation on his face. “Very well,” he said quietly. “I would not want to be responsible for an inter-kingdom uproar.” He paused. “You know, it struck me a while ago-did anyone else notice it hasn’t really rained all day?”
Boromir pondered this, then glanced up at Eomer and Aragorn. “Well…no, I guess it hasn’t.”
Faramir nodded at the setting sun, which was going down amidst a glorious array of pinks and purples. “And the sun has been out for hours, with no clouds in the sky.”
“Perhaps the time of rain has ended here,” said Aragorn hopefully.
Boromir eyed his brother. “And you saw all this while you were supposed to be resting?”
The younger man returned the critical gaze. “I was scarcely in a position to do anything else,” he said in response. He then sighed and closed his eyes, settling into the soft bed of grass. “But it gives me hope that our journey out will be much smoother than our journey in.”
Eomer nodded in firm agreement. “Not to mention, much less slippery.”