Many thanks to my sister SarahB for her help with this story. Will be updated regularly!
Faramir sighed as he awoke, enjoying one last luxurious stretch in his large, soft bed. From the sensation of warm sunlight on his face, he knew it was morning; and from the welcome feeling of his wife by his side, he knew it was early, for Eowyn often arose before he did.
Before he could urge his eyes open, he felt one of her smooth arms snake across his bare chest, and her low voice whispered teasingly into his ear, "Good morning, my lazy Lord!"
Smiling, he pried open his eyelids. Their spacious chamber was awash in early morning sunlight, not quite as lovely as their home bedroom in Ithilien, but splendid nonetheless. Turning his head a little, his long copper hair rustling softly against the down pillow, he beheld what it was that made anywhere he awoke home to him: the beautiful face of his wife.
"Lazy?" he mumbled with a drowsy grin, slowly putting his arms around her. "I recall no such complaints last night, my lady."
"Hmm," she replied, settling into his embrace, "I don't believe conversation was a priority at the time."
He opened his mouth to respond, when a knock suddenly came on their chamber door. They both groaned.
"My lord?" came a page's voice from the hallway. "I bear a message from the King."
"Can you not send him away?" sighed Eowyn in a slightly cross tone, holding him a bit tighter.
Faramir grunted. "I fear it is one of the drawbacks of visiting Minas Tirith, my love, to be so close to our King that he can find me when he needs me. I would question his timing, however."
She smiled as he began to untangle himself. "Would you really? I think he'd find that most amusing."
"As Steward, I shall be sure to put it on our agenda for the next Council meeting," he muttered with good humor as he threw back the thick coverlet and sat up, the sunlight playing across the curling hairs on his muscular chest. Clad only in leggings, he padded quickly to the door, picking up a long white dressing gown on the way and pulling it over his broad shoulders. He had it loosely draped over his tall frame before finally opening the door, revealing a rather uncertain-looking young man.
"And what word from the King?" asked Faramir politely, after waiting a moment.
"If you please, sir," was the somewhat stammered answer, after the page drank in the somewhat awkward situation, "King Elessar begs you to attend him in the throne room at once. He says an urgent matter has come up."
Eowyn moaned in irritation and plopped back onto the pillow. "Why do those never come up in the afternoon?"
"Thank you, please inform His Majesty I shall join him at once," Faramir said in a brisk, efficient manner. As the messenger bowed quickly and scurried off, he pushed the wooden door closed.
"I suppose this means we won't be meeting Eomer for midday supper," she murmured, propping herself up on one elbow and leaning her head on her open hand as she watched her husband dress himself.
"We may yet," Faramir replied as he quickly pulled on his everyday court clothes. "Perhaps this is merely some matter of policy that just has to be cut through. Such as our last visit, when - what?"
He had been lacing up his dark green court tunic, and had caught her looking at him with a very wide smile.
"I was just thinking," she said, "you dress faster than any man I know. It takes my brother half an hour just to find his overshirt."
Faramir smiled, finished the last of his laces, and leaned over her, now fully clothed, his face only a few inches from hers.
"When this business is over, my White Lady of Rohan," he murmured, "I shall show you how fast I can unclothe myself. It will astound you even more."
With that, they shared a deep kiss, after which he reluctantly stood and headed out of the door, closing it softly behind him.
Faramir hurried along the wide green courtyard of Minas Tirith's upper level, enjoying for a moment the bright blue skies of the early morning. The cool breeze fanned his face as he strode past the ancient White Tree towards the large columned building at the courtyard's other end, his mind working out what the new problem could possibly be.
He swiftly trotted up the wide marble steps, running his slender fingers through his long ginger curls in an effort to look as if he had not truly just gotten out of bed. By the time he had gone through the huge carved doors, down the long white corridor, and into the enormous throne room with its tall statues and towering black columns, he had assumed the mindset of a dedicated Steward ready to do his King's service. Although, he thought, some coffee would have really been nice.
As Faramir traversed the lengthy room, he lifted his eyes to see the King and a few advisors standing by a table to one side of the room. Aragorn was clad in formal but casual dress, without his crown, his long black hair somewhat disheveled. His gray eyes were clear and aware, however, as he straightened and greeted his Steward.
"Good day, Faramir," he said in his usual soft voice as he clasped the younger man's shoulder. "I trust you will forgive me for calling you so early. I fear this cannot wait."
"In matters important to Gondor, Sire, there is no time I am not at your service," answered Faramir as he bowed slightly. He glanced own at the table and saw it was covered with maps of southern Gondor. A frown creased his face. "More trouble in the South?"
Aragorn pursed his lips and nodded. "Bands of Orcs have been striking from this region and retreating back into its sheltering lands too quickly for us to find them," he replied, indicating with one graceful finger a land in South Ithilien near the Crossings of Poros, dotted with wide plains and a few mountains. "I intend to scout the area myself, and would welcome your assistance."
Faramir looked at him, his blue eyes wide with surprise. "You personally, sire? This is rather dangerous, is it not? I will gladly lead a scouting party myself..."
The King's handsome face was graced with a gentle smile as he placed a hand on Faramir's shoulder. "Your concern is noted with thanks, my friend, but it is unwarranted. I spent many years in that land as a Ranger and know its every rock. A party of soldiers will be too easily seen by the Orcs on the wide plains between the hills; a few men, traveling quickly, will go unnoticed. Besides," he added with a sigh, lowering his voice, "these castle walls are beginning to close in on me. I greatly desire some open air and a few days' free travel, before I begin to forget myself!"
Faramir smiled in understanding. Aragorn had been a solitary Ranger in the wild for almost his entire life before becoming King, and Faramir, as a former Ranger himself, knew that the cry of the wilderness could not be denied forever by the men who had once lived by its call.
"All is in order," Aragorn continued. "We shall leave the realm in safe hands and be gone but a few days. When we have found the Orcs' lair and know their number, we may return and send in an army suitable to deal with them."
The other man inclined his head in agreement. "A fitting arrangement," he said. "I shall prepare my pack and be ready by noon."
"Agreed," the King said with a firm nod. "Oh-and mind that you pack a few changes of clothes."
This advice took Faramir somewhat aback. "Clothes, my liege?"
Aragorn nodded, looking down at the map with a resigned expression. "These lands are quite wet this time of year, and the plains become vast seas of mud. Our horses may be unable to traverse the uncertain land, and if we are forced to travel on foot, it may get...well, rather messy. I have known travelers to cross it almost naked, rather than repeatedly clean their clothes."
Faramir pondered the unusual dictum, then shrugged and nodded. "Certainly, Sire, I am sure I brought a few sturdy shirts and trousers that will bear such conditions."
The King thought about this for moment. "Trousers, yes. Perhaps only a few shirts. Having been there myself, I would say that you probably won't be wearing shirts there for very long."
Faramir gazed at him, thrown. "Truly?"
Aragorn nodded slowly, his eyes full of memory. "Oh, yes. Trust me."
Eowyn sat at the vanity, hairbrush in hand, and watched with disappointed irritation as her husband packed. "And you must leave this very day?"
"We cannot let the Orcs have free run over our lands, now that the war has ended," was the measured reply as Faramir peered into his half-full travel bag. Various folded shirts and trousers lay scattered nearby on the bed. "Did I truly only bring three pairs of clean stockings?"
She sighed and stood, her long golden hair flowing behind her as she walked over to him, the gentle rustling of her dark green dressing gown stirring the air. "That was as many as you thought you'd need, I wager," she said. "But from what I know of this realm, you'll go through three pairs so quickly that you may as well only take one. It will at least save the laundresses some unneeded labor."
Faramir's mouth twitched as he removed two pairs of stockings from the bag. "Has everyone heard of this land but me?" he murmured.
"My father and uncle once chased some Orcs across those plains when he was young," she explained, putting one arm around his shoulder and resting her chin on his shoulder. "It took them a week to get all of the mud out of the chinks in their armor. My mother almost killed them for what they did to the castle's woven rugs."
Her husband smiled as he looked at her. "I promise to be quite clean when I set foot upon our rugs," he said lightly.
She smiled back and gave him a quick kiss. "Well, do not say that so fast. I might *prefer* you a bit dirty."
His smile widened.
At that moment a knock came on the door, and a familiar voice from outside called, "Are the Steward and his Lady prepared to receive the King of Rohan?"
Eowyn chuckled and turned her face to the door, replying, "Since he remembered to knock this time, yes."
The chamber door swung open, admitting a tall, robust young man with long, slightly unkempt dark blonde hair, a dark beard, and piercing brown eyes. He was clad in elaborate riding gear decorated with multiple carvings of horses, much covered in dust, and in the crook of one arm he bore a magnificent helmet with a long horse-tail crest.
"I should think my memory would improve," he said in a deep, biting tone to Eowyn, "after the tongue-lashing you gave me the last time."
The White Lady laughed and went to him, putting her hands on his shoulders and standing on tiptoe to kiss his cheek. "Your previous visit was at a rather inopportune moment, dear brother."
"But as welcome as this one, nonetheless," said Faramir with a smile, coming forward to grasp the arm of his brother-in-law. "Welcome, Eomer. How fare matters in Rohan?"
"Oh, well enough," was the slightly testy reply as Eomer carefully placed his riding helmet on a nearby table. "At least, that's what they tell me. I do not know how our Father and our Uncle managed to keep their sanity, while they were King. I am tied to the Hall all day with endless meetings and councils! I knew better what was happening in our realm when I was banished. At least then, I could ride about and see how things stood for myself!"
"I seem to recall Father and Uncle managing a ride out now and then," Eowyn remarked, bringing her brother a goblet of water. "You recall enough of your ways of stealth to manage the same, I'm sure."
Eomer sat on a nearby chair and accepted the refreshment with a nod of thanks. "The councilmen and advisors I can slip past-they're usually too busy arguing with each other to notice what I do, anyway! I'm not sure I could get by Lothiriel, though." He peered at Faramir. "Your cousin is entirely too observant."
Faramir paused from stuffing his travel bag long enough to look up and grin fondly. "It sounds as if she hasn't changed much, even after being wed to you for six months. I would advise you to simply get used to it. She is well?"
"Mmm," said Eomer with a nod, a frown creasing his brow. "She sends her love to you both. I have some letters from her in my pack." He gestured at Faramir's activity with one thickly gloved hand. "Speaking of packs, are you returning to Ithilien already?"
"Faramir is," was Eowyn's answer as she crossed the room to take a seat by her brother. "There's trouble on the border, and of course my husband has to go right into the middle of it."
Eomer shot a look at Faramir. "The Orcs from the plains to the south?"
The other man glanced at him in surprise, a folded shirt in one hand. "Yes, Aragorn and I are riding down this day to see what we can find. Have you heard of their assaults?"
"They attacked a group of Rohirrim some three weeks," Eomer replied after taking a drink from the goblet, his expression turning dark. "It was a party of travelers with leave from the King to cross the southern lands." He thought for a moment, then stood. "Do you think Aragorn would allow me to join you on this mission?"
The Steward frowned a little as he turned the question over in his mind. "We may ask him - I'm fairly certain your assistance would be welcome, as always. Do you know about the lands we ride to?"
"Only what I have heard tell from others," was Eomer's response. His eyes narrowed. "They say it is a land of high mountains and deep mud, ringed with waterfalls and wide, open plains. Horses will be useless, crippled within a few miles of entering its borders. They also say...one cannot keep a clean set of clothes on there to save one's life."
Faramir chuckled a bit and nodded. "That is what the King said also," he remarked. "During my years as a Ranger, we only ventured that far south a few times, and all during the dryer time of the year."
A tight smile graced Eomer's handsome features. "You are most fortunate, for it is the season of rain in that region. Now we shall see how a Ranger of Ithilien deals with endless seas of mud!"
Faramir sighed and closed his pack. "It cannot be worse than dealing with endless seas of Orcs," he observed. "Come, let us go speak to the King and have our midday meal before we must depart. If I am going to drown in a relentless quagmire of ooze, it shall at least be on a full stomach."
The sun was almost in its noonday position by the time the three travelers were prepared to depart. The day was bright, but to the south, dark clouds rumbled on the horizon.
"Take good care," said Eowyn with a loving smile before she kissed her husband farewell.
"I shall try not to come home too filthy," Faramir returned in a light voice, drawing her close and kissing her once more.
They parted, and she gently squeezed his arm. "Just come home," she chided in a tone of mock sharpness. "We shall worry about making you presentable once you're in the door."
"Don't worry, sister, we'll be certain to dunk him thoroughly before allowing him onto your carpets," Eomer assured her as he led his horse into the bright sunlight of the courtyard.
She laughed and gave him a kiss as well. "If Faramir is dirty, I'm sure you will be naught but a walking ball of mud," she said fondly.
He smiled in reply. "I'll be as clean as your fair husband, save for the Orc blood on my sword," he promised, his dark eyes fierce with determination.
As they mounted their steeds, Eowyn stood back and folded her arms. "I hope not," she replied. "You're only a scouting party, remember, you can't take on a whole band of Orcs by yourselves."
"Ha!" scoffed Eomer as he settled easily into his saddle. "Do you hear that, Faramir? As if any filthy nest of Orcs were any match for two Kings and a Steward of Gondor."
Faramir was taking his reins into his hands and looking about. "We may have to slaughter them ourselves, my friend," he said. "We appear to be short a monarch. Have either of you seen the King?"
Eowyn smiled. "I believe he was saying goodbye to the Queen."
"Are we prepared?"
At the familiar voice, they all turned to see Aragorn, clad in his black-green traveling leathers and looking more like an ordinary rider than the King of Gondor. His clothing was a bit disheveled and his face gleamed with sweat.
"Indeed we are, my Liege," answered Faramir with an empathetic smile of complete understanding.
Aragorn nodded sharply. "Then let us ride."
Soon the restored Great Gates of the courtyard swung open, revealing the wide plains of the Pelennor Fields and the mountain range of Ephel Duath, once wreathed only in shadow but now drenched in sunlight. Little fanfare accompanied the departure of the two Kings and the Steward; they rode through the portal as any other travelers might, and only Eowyn paid much attention to their retreating figures. Few noticed the White Lady as she climbed to the height of the wall and watched the riders growing ever smaller as they rode along the river towards the south. She stood there for some time as the sun climbed past its zenith and the heedless crowds swirled through the courtyard below her, until distance and the mountains took the travelers from her view.
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 distant foothills of the southern mountains. 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 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 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 King'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 mud, and eventually by Faramir's pragmatic, questioning voice.
"This trip isn't going to get any better, is it?"