Disclaimers: To quote from Shakespeare- "I owneth not 'Lord of the Rings', Nor any of those characters which pertaineth therein, Horatio". Yes, that really is from Hamlet. Look it up.
A/n: Hmmm…. judging by my chapterly hit counter and barring some highly enthusiastic rereading on the part of the reviewers, several hundred of you are in for seven very nasty years indeed. If you are one such individual and wish to save yourself from an ignominious fate, four-leaf clovers, rainbow-striped rabbit's foot keychains, and other such auspicious memorabilia are, for a limited time only, available for purchase from yours truly. All proceeds will go toward my ongoing and shockingly underfunded Quest For World Domination.
"Aragorn? Aragorn? Aragorn love, everyone's getting ready to leave and Gamling is trying to make us some snacks to take with us, because the diners on that side of the Isen are a bit dodgy and we probably won't have any time to stop, anyway, what with the battle for Middle-earth being about to begin and that sort of thing, but there's no point in trying to initiate peaceable diplomatic dialogues with deposed servants of the Dark Lord on an empty stomach, you know—hence the snacks—and so Gamling wanted me to ask you what kind of mustard you'd like on your sandwich, because Gamling was a bit silly and made Grimbold do all the grocery shopping, forgetting that Grimbold has a severe case of Obsessive-Compulsive Bargain-Shopping Disorder—a real medical condition, and very tragic, I'm told—and he became so overwhelmed the condiments aisle that he bought four hundred different brands of mustard, and Gamling isn't sure which one you'd prefer him to—oh."
Legolas, who had been gamboling gaily down the stone corridor and calling as he went, finally reached the threshold of Aragorn's makeshift quarters and stopped dead. Isildur's heir was standing in a shadowy corner of the room with his back to the door and his trousers around his knees, apparently engaged in activities of a highly furtive nature, and had additionally just emitted a sound that, to Legolas's elven-keen ears, sounded uncommonly like a groan.
"Oh," repeated Legolas stupidly. "Sorry. I didn't realize you were—busy."
Aragorn cast the Elf a rueful glare over his shoulder. "This," he said firmly, "is not what it looks like."
Legolas glanced pointedly at Aragorn's leggings, which were now around his ankles, in what could only be termed as a highly skeptical manner. "I see."
Aragorn rolled his eyes. "Oh, for the love of—I'm putting athelas on my burns."
"Is that what they're calling it now?"
"Oh, shut up!" barked Aragorn bad-temperedly. "Look, I just spilled—"
Aragorn growled in frustration. "Would you let me finish—"
"With pleasure. No one's stopping you."
"Thanks, but I'll leave that to you."
"ShutupshutupSHUTUP!" cried Aragorn in a tone that might very well have been called a Screech (insofar as any person whose voice possesses such an unaffectedly nasal timbre as Aragorn's can be said to Screech). "Why is it that EVERYTHING I say gets misconstrued? WHY? I've just dumped nearly an entire pot's worth of obscenely hot stew onto an incredibly sensitive region of my anatomy! Does it LOOK like I'm having FUN to YOU?"
Legolas was chastened. "I'm sorry, Aragorn," he said timidly. "So you're really putting athelas on your burns?"
Aragorn sighed through gritted teeth. "Yes."
"Well, isn't that fine!" exclaimed the Elf, his irritation mounting once more. "You wouldn't let me have the tiniest pinch of athelas for my injured knee, but you'll waste it on that pathetically singed sausage of yours?!"
"This is no trivial matter!" growled Aragorn. "The continuance of the line of Isildur and the future kingship depends on the full functioning of my sausage areas!"
"It looks like Gondor is in some trouble, then!"
There was a long moment during which Aragorn looked murderously at Legolas and Legolas looked defiantly at Aragorn and the last embers of the dying fire in the grate crackled tentatively. There was also a vague, continuous sound not unlike that of ten thousand readers whimpering for Aragorn to please, please pull his trousers back up, but this, tragically, passed unheard by either party in question.
Presently, Legolas broke the silence. "My lavender-scented hand lotion doubles as a burn salve, you know."
Aragorn's face lit up with hope. "Really?"
"Maybe, if you'd deigned to let me borrow some athelas back on the battlements, I'd feel compelled to lend it to you now. As it is, however…" Legolas shrugged his shoulders airily.
Aragorn rolled his eyes. "Oh, fine! If I put some athelas on your knee, will you give me the (censored)salve?"
"Perhaps," said Legolas, "you ought to say please."
"Hell if I'll say 'please' to you!"
Legolas lifted an eyebrow. "Dear me," he said delicately. "It doesn't sound like you want that salve very much at all! Well, I hope you enjoy the ride to Isengard. It promises to be a bumpy one."
There was a pause, followed by a sullen, muttered, "Please."
"See, that wasn't so hard, now was it?"
"Just shut up and give me the lotion."
Aragorn sighed. "Fine. Sit."
Legolas promptly seated himself on a discarded packing crate, and Aragorn, resignedly, knelt in front of him. Fumbling with his herb pouch, he snapped a cursory, "Roll up your leggings, will you?" to his patient.
"Roll up my leggings?!" repeated Legolas, scandalized to the point of horror. "But they'll wrinkle!"
"Well, then take the (censored) leggings off! And be quick about it—I haven't got all day!"
"Och! Aragarn, ay've bin sent ter ask yer wot kynd o' mayonayse ye'd lyke on yer sayndwich! Gamling bouwght this spaecial kynd o' 'low-fat' brand and 'e saeys yer bownd ter perfare it since yer so straect on yer exercaese raegimen, bot aye say it looks awfaelly soospect; ye naever know wot myght bae in—oh."
Gimli, who had been lumbering laboriously down the stone corridor and calling as he went, reached the threshold of Aragorn's makeshift quarters and stopped dead. Isildur's heir, his pants still around his ankles, was kneeling in the middle of the room and rather conspicuously between Legolas's legs, apparently engaged in activities of a less-than-furtive nature, and had additionally just emitted a sound that, to Gimli's Dwarven-keen ears, sounded uncommonly like "take the (censored) leggings off, and be quick about it, I haven't got all day".
"Oh," he repeated, dully. "Saerry. Aye daydn't raelize ye were—engaeged."
Legolas cast a rueful glance at Gimli from over Aragorn's head. "This," he said primly, "is not what it looks like."
"Though I am engaged," put in Aragorn. "But not to Legolas. To Éowyn. Arwen. Brego. One of them."
"Right now, he's just putting athelas on my injured knee," clarified Legolas.
"Is that wot thaey're callin' it now? Aye thowt that kynd o' thaeng was usually refaerred to as 'blowin' the Harn of Gondar'," said Gimli with a frown.
"Ugh, who'd want to blow that?" spat Aragorn disdainfully. "Especially not after Boromir's had his mouth all over it."
There was a noise not unlike that of ten thousand readers reacting suddenly to the graphic mental imagery produced by the preceding sentence.
"Speaking of Boromir, however," Aragorn went on, "odious though that prospect may be—Gimli, you might want to pull up a chair. The three of us need to have a little chat."
"Abowt wot?" asked Gimli, settling down on a nearby barrel and balancing his battleaxe easily across his knees.
Aragorn rolled his eyes. "About Boromir, you idiot; isn't that what I just said?"
"Is there a reason why you've just sliced my knee open, by the way?" inquired Legolas curiously.
"Just making the Incision. Standard procedure."
"Well, as long as you don't let the blood seep into my shoes. You wouldn't believe how much hair-flipping I had to do while I was haggling price over these. What were you saying about Boromir?"
"As you all know," said Aragorn, wiping a stray dribble of blood from Legolas's shin with the cuff of his sleeve, "I am the legitimate heir the kingship of the united kingdoms of Gondor and Arnor. And, as you all know, Boromir, apparently a sour grape and a sore loser just like his father Steward, is eager to prevent me from claiming my rightful inheritance. Now, I want to stress to the two of you that the personal benefits to yourselves in the event of my ascension of the throne will be far superior to anything you can expect out of Boromir. Legolas, you'll get a three-hundred acre lakeside property in Ithilien and unlimited free spa dates in Dol Amroth. Gimli, you'll get prime stock options in the Moria-based mithril trade market, once I conquer the Misty Mountains, and all the pint-strowp your heart desires. But I need to be assured of your full support in all matters relating to the Húrins."
"Do the spa dates come with free seaweed wraps?" asked Legolas.
"And piña coladas while you wait."
"I'm in," declared the Elf. "How about you, Dwarf?"
"That depaends. Aye want a paenthouse in the Glitteraeng Caeves. Can ye get mae one?"
"Well, Helm's Deep and other Rohirric possessions are outside my jurisdiction," said Aragorn, "but I can probably wrangle it. I was a captain in Thengel's army back when Théoden was in nappies, and I have some rather embarrassing photographs of him in the bathtub. I think I might manage to make suitable leverage out of them."
"Waell, then ye ken count on mae suppowrt."
"Good," replied Aragorn, beaming as he sprinkled Legolas's knee with athelas. "Now, as far as Vladimir is concerned..."
"Apparently his name is Faramir, actually."
"Yes, Faramir, that one. Now, I know Boromir's cooked up some excuse about leaving him behind for 'diplomatic purposes'," said Aragorn, "but it's obvious, of course, that he's really here to spy on me. This is a precarious business, you know, and we have to address the threat that Faramir might pose to our interests. Indeed, we may have to resort to extreme... diplomatic measures... to get Faramir out of the picture."
"Oh, that won't be necessary," said Legolas decisively.
Aragorn raised an eyebrow. "And what makes you say that?"
"Because Faramir has a very obvious Fraternal Hyperinferiority Complex, common in small, nuclear families where one child is clearly favored over another," replied Legolas knowledgeably. "Whatever Faramir's conscious loyalties may be, down inside he's probably got a deep-seated resentment of his elder brother that undoubtedly leads to torturous psychological conflicts. If we can tap into that latent jealousy, then we can easily win him over to our side."
"Sure. Lure Faramir into an isolated, neutral environment... serve a few glasses of wine, maybe some dinner... bring up the Fellowship and the Quest, enlarging on Boromir's part in it... and soon enough he'll be disparaging his brother's good name like there's no tomorrow."
"But that's brilliant!" cried Aragorn, slicing open Legolas's knee again in his elation. "Boromir might think that Faramir was spying on us, but really, we'd be using Faramir to spy on him! It's foolproof!"
"Unlaes Faeramir decaeded to spy on oos wael praetending to spy on Boromir wael praetending to spy on oos. Och," remarked Gimli.
Aragorn ignored him. "Where's Faramir now? Has anyone seen him since lunch?"
"Last I heard, he was going outside to get a breath of fresh air," replied Legolas. "I haven't seen him since. I can't move my leg, incidentally."
"I may have severed a tendon. Don't worry, I can still fix it."
"See that you do. These are the legs that won me 'Miss Greenwood 3017' last year."
"That's a piece of information I could have happily died having never known."
"Always glad to be of service."
While Aragorn was busily in the throes of garnering support for his political campaign, his chief political archrival was busily in the throes of traveling back to his home city. In this latter endeavor, several rather pressing Problems had already manifested themselves. Of these pressing Problems, five were key.
1. The Starbucks that Boromir had MapQuested before setting out turned out to be in a completely different location than the one specified in the directions
2. The Starbucks that Boromir had MapQuested before setting out turned out to be almost ten miles from the location specified in the directions
3. The Starbucks that Boromir had MapQuested before setting out turned out to have been burned down during the devastation of the Westfold, and all that remained of the establishment when Boromir arrived on the site was a charred pile of rubble
4. Charred piles of rubble, it so transpired, did not serve frappucinos, and,
5. All of Boromir's wounds had started bleeding again.
After several strenuous hours' worth of travel, Boromir began to notice that he was losing sensation in his outer extremities—due to coffee deprivation or blood loss, he wasn't really sure which—and decided that it was probably time he took a short rest. Finding a suitable boulder, he sat down heavily, shading his eyes with one hand and peering out across the plains dazedly. The sun was unusually oppressive today, and he was sure there hadn't been a breath of fresh wind in more than an hour. At least the softly rustling branches of a nearby bush offered him some shield against the blazing sunlight.
It suddenly occurred to Boromir that bushes very rarely rustle of their own volition, and that there was no wind. These two facts in conjunction with one another had rather disturbing implications, and Boromir leapt up from the boulder promptly, drawing his sword with a wince as he did so. This had to be the only (censored) bush for five miles, and there just had to be someone hiding it. Boromir rolled his eyes. Maybe he should have taken Legolas's warnings about bad luck with less skepticism.
"Alright, who's there?" he croaked.
The bush stopped rustling.
Boromir frowned. "Look, I know you're there. You've been caught. There's no use in pretending."
Boromir sighed through gritted teeth. "Okay, here's the deal—if you stand up very, very slowly and show yourself, I may be open to negotiations. Otherwise, I'm going to have to hack up that bush with my sword, and that's going to be very ugly for y—"
"Thinking about hacking up that bush with your sword, are we?" came a voice from somewhere behind him.
Boromir whirled around and found himself face-to-face with Rohan's Environmental Protection Agency Crack Crime Squad. Dear Eru, not again!
"Are you aware that that bush is the only one of its species left in Middle-earth?" said the Rohirrim at the head of the group, who Boromir recognized as being the one who had picked him up for littering in Helm's Deep only two days before.
"No, I wasn't," replied Boromir tersely. "And I'm not usually the type to go cutting up plant life at random, you know, but it so happens that there's someone hiding in—"
"Are you Boromir of Gondor?" cut in the squad leader.
Boromir sighed. "Yes. Unfortunately."
"Do you have any ID?"
"Oh, dear Valar—for the last time, my 'Steward's Favorite Son' card is in Rivendell. But I have the Horn of Gondor," he added, holding it aloft explanatorily. "Isn't that good enough as proof of identity?"
"We have heard quite a lot of things about that Horn," said one of the other EPA guerillas, somewhat suggestively.
"Well, if you're Boromir of Gondor," said the squad leader gruffly, "then answer me this: did you, or did you not, kick a dark-colored stray cat at the fortress of Helm's Deep today at 1300 hours, Standard Edoras Time?"
Boromir gulped. "Yes. Maybe. I don't know."
"You do realize that the kicking of cats, stray or otherwise, qualifies as Animal Abuse?"
"But it was for symbolic literary purposes."
"That's no excuse!" said the squad leader sharply. "I'm afraid we're going to have to take you into custody."
"Again?" gasped Boromir. "Now, look, I don't have time for this! I've got a city to travel to and a kingdom to defend and a Shadow to defeat and a political usurpation to circumvent, not to mention that I really am bleeding all over the place, so if we could maybe work out some kind of arr—"
"Should've thought of that one before you decided to go around kicking cats, shouldn't you?" interrupted the head guerilla pitilessly. "We are prepared to use force if necessary."
"Now, see here—"
"ERU ABOVE!" cried Faramir, leaping out of the bush behind him. "There's a poacher with a fur coat and leather boots and an AK-47 chasing down a pregnant Warg with a broken leg while driving a radioactive garbage truck with illegal exhaust-emission rates! And they just went that way!" He pointed frantically in the opposite direction.
With a patter of stampeding feet and a cloud of dust, Rohan's Environmental Protection Agency Crack Crime Squad was gone, leaving behind several dozen still-smoldering cigarette butts in their wake. Faramir smiled smugly. "Another point for me, I think. My diversions are always the very best. That one's a classic—saved Osgiliath four times, you know. Who would've thought the Haradrim were so environmentally conscious? Goodness, Boromir, you look a bit green," he added, concerned. "Do you think you might want to sit down again?"
"Yes, I think I might," said Boromir weakly, and collapsed to the ground.
"Boromir!" cried Faramir, dashing forward hurriedly. He grabbed Boromir by the shoulders and turned him over, but he remained limp and unresponsive. Faramir panicked. He could feel all the tell-tale signs beginning: tingling nose, smarting eyes, trembling lip—"I am NOT going to start crying again, goddammit!" he hissed out loud. He shook Boromir mercilessly. "Don't you DARE, Boromir! If you up and die on me now, I swear I will rip off your (censored) (censored) and shove it up your (censored) (censored) (censored)with a (censored) (censored) and a (censored), so help me Eru! Wake up!"
There was a tense moment, and then Boromir's eyes fluttered open. "You called me back from the dead, little brother," he said, his voice weak with exhaustion and sheer wonderment.
Faramir sniffled fiercely. "That's the power of Love™."
"Actually, I think it had more to do with the fact that you threatened to rip off my (censored)(censored) with a (censored)."
"Ah, well. Same thing."
Boromir sat up slowly and groaned. "Well, now that we've gotten the obligatory small talk out of the way, Faramir, would you care to explain exactly why you happened to be hiding in that bush"—he gestured toward the shrub in question—"and not back in Helm's Deep, where I expressly told you to stay? Is there a component of this new 'parallel-universes' disorder of yours that makes it physically impossible for you to do what you're told?"
"Well, I would have stayed," said Faramir defensively, "except I was worried about you."
"Worried?" cried Boromir incredulously. "Worried? About me? Faramir, I'm a grown man! I don't need looking after! I have everything completely under control!"
Faramir gave him a Look. "I see."
"Well, alright, just now was—well, you caught me at one of my more awkward moments," conceded Boromir, "but that's no reason for you to disobey my orders. I may be your brother, but I'm still Captain-General of Gondor's armies—and, as one of her Captains, if I tell you to stay in Rohan, then you had bloody well stay in Rohan."
"Boromir, you're mortally wounded in three places!" snapped Faramir. "I'm not about to let you go gallivanting across Rohan by yourself, whatever you may say about it! Supposing I had been an enemy, then? I managed to track you across the plains with no cover for three hours without your noticing it!"
"You're a Ranger! You're about three thousand times better at tracking than any of Sauron's rabble! It's not the same thing!"
"Boromir, how do you suppose I tracked you?" demanded Faramir.
"My scent? Look, I don't know and I don't see why it matters!"
"I tracked you," said Faramir, "by following the vultures that are currently circling over your head."
Boromir gave a forced laugh. "Oh, don't be ridiculous. There aren't any vultures circling over my head." His smile faded. "Are there?"
Faramir responded with another Look.
Boromir looked up very, very, very slowly, and was promptly struck in the nose by a falling grenade of vulture feces.
"Okay, I see your point," grumbled Boromir, accepting the monogrammed handkerchief that Faramir offered him and using it to wipe his face. "Well, what do you propose we do, then? I'm clearly not up to traveling all the way to Minas Tirith by myself, but I can't take you with me, because Father will kill you. And there's still the matter of Aragorn."
"Look, don't worry about Aragorn," said Faramir dismissively. "I have that whole situation in hand."
"It's complicated, and I haven't got time to explain it all just now, but, suffice to say, I'm monitoring his movements very carefully," replied Faramir with the kind of determined ambiguity that brooks no further argument. "Anyway, Aragorn is the least of our worries at this point. The real trouble will be getting to Minas Tirith. But even that I don't think will be so very difficult as you anticipate. Think about it, Boromir: if you, the long-absent, long-favored elder son, mosey back into Minas Tirith with three mortal wounds and news of the Ring of Power, what's the likelihood, do you suppose, that Father will even notice I'm with you?"
Boromir paused, considering. It was a fairly valid point, he had to admit. "That's still a rather enormous assumption to be banking on, Faramir. I won't risk it."
"Well, then tell him I left Ithilien on your orders. You're the Captain-General, after all, Boromir—I'm always supposed to follow your orders, aren't I?"
"He won't fall for it."
"He will. He believes everything you say."
"He didn't believe the one about the jelly crumpet when I was eight."
"That was because you had jelly on your face."
"Well, you might have told me!"
"Look, Boromir," said Faramir, sighing, "I know that I haven't exactly been—myself—lately, but you're going to have to trust me on this. It isn't safe for you to be wandering around by yourself in this state, and, whatever the dictates of Life or Necessity or Duty may be, you certainly aren't going to be of any use to Gondor if you get yourself devoured by carrion in the middle of the sodding Westfold. I'm coming with you, and there isn't anything you can do to change my mind."
Boromir rolled his eyes in reluctant assent. "Fine. I'll let you come along—for now, anyway."
Faramir smiled triumphantly. "Good boy. I have some fresh bandages in my pack; they should help, though I'm certainly no healer."
"I've just about had it with healers, to be quite honest."
"It's a good thing I found you when I did," added Faramir, rummaging through his supplies in search of some gauze. "Did you know that you've been going the wrong direction the entire time? I did always tell you never to use MapQuest, you know."
Contrary to Boromir and Faramir's suspicions, however, word of Faramir's dereliction of duty had not yet reached the Steward's ears. There was no price on Faramir's head. There was no warrant for his arrest. So far as Denethor knew, Faramir was buried deep the wilds of Ithilien, shooting squirrels and pissing in bushes and learning to tie knots and whatever else he and his little troop of green-hooded Boy Scouts did out there in the woods all day. This lack of information on Denethor's part was not due to a depressing sluggishness in the transmission rates of Gondorian gossip—which were, in fact, reckoned at being 3.5 percent faster than the going speed of Minas Tirith's swiftest couriers—but to a simple lack of common observational skills on the part of Faramir's Rangers. Because Faramir's Rangers, it so happened, had not yet noticed that he was missing.
This was perhaps not so very remarkable as it sounds. The Rangers of Ithilien were military men, trained to follow orders and not to ask too many questions, and, as such, they very rarely took it upon themselves to ponder the movements of their Captain. If Captain Faramir was absent from a scouting mission, then it was generally assumed that he was back at Henneth Annûn, planning a secret strategy. If Captain Faramir was absent from a strategy meeting, then it was generally assumed that he was out in the forest, leading a secret scouting mission. That Faramir might, in fact, be sitting barefoot in the upper branches of a nearby tree, drinking a bottle and reading a book, never occurred to them. (The latter scenario had never actually taken place in reality, it must be noted, though Faramir did keep a flask of tequila and an enormous Sindarin anthology stashed at the top of a large spruce tree, just in case). Whether this blind trust was due to the fact that he was a Captain men would follow even under the shadow of the black wings or the fact that his men had a rather shocking lack of imagination, Faramir had never determined to his satisfaction, but, whatever the true cause, it worked decidedly in Faramir's favor on this occasion. None of Faramir's Rangers had seen Faramir in several days, but they all immediately assumed that he was simply somewhere else, doing the necessary and sometimes inscrutable work required of him by his captaincy.
Anborn finally discovered the letter that Faramir had left for him quite by accident. Wandering into the roughly-hewn back cave that Faramir used as his office space in search of a pair of scissors, he happened to spot a large quantity of mail sitting in an untidy, unopened stack on the far corner of the desk. That the envelope on top was addressed to "Hey You" indicated that some of the missives were from Denethor. Anborn began to experience misgivings. Faramir always opened his mail. Always. Even the free brochures that Rohan's Environmental Protection Agency kept sending him. It was just the way he did things.
And then he saw it. Propped up against a pot of what appeared to be dead geraniums was another letter, and this letter, Anborn realized suddenly, was addressed to him.
Using the pair of scissors he'd only just managed to find among all the paperwork, Anborn slit the envelope.
Circumstances require that I leave Henneth Annûn on an extended trip. I do not know how long I will be gone or when I can be expected back. I am putting you in charge in my absence. There is bread, dried meat, and several casks of wine in the back storeroom. If there is an emergency, you are to contact the garrison at Osgiliath for help, but absolutely NO CRANK COURIERS, and DON'T think I won't find out.
Don't let in any strangers. Lights-out is at eight o'clock.
P.S. Please water my geraniums.
Anborn folded the letter up once more, silently, methodically, a slow and devious smile spreading across his face. "Damrod!" he called.
Damrod scurried into the room. "What's wrong?"
"Oh, nothing's wrong," replied Anborn smugly, tucking the letter into the pocket of his cloak. "Just the Captain's gone off on a secret mission. And he's left me in charge."
"You?" repeated Damrod incredulously. "Why you?"
"Oh, wipe that terrible expression off your face, Dammy; it makes you look like a constipated fish. I can't help it if Captain Faramir likes me better than he likes you." Anborn clapped his hands together enthusiastically. "But think about it! We have the run of the whole place now, no one ordering us about or breathing down our necks... do you know what I think we'll do, Dammy?"
"What do you think we'll do?" asked Damrod, somewhat hesitantly.
"I think we'll throw the biggest house party this two-bit woodland joint has ever seen!"
A/n: What?! What?! It's been less than a week and Eggo has already updated twice?! How can this be?!
Well, I'm doing it for the good of mankind, really. I figure that if I can just get hell to freeze over, then the resultant temperature difference will be enough to counteract the effects of global warming, and we can all continue to drive our SUVs with impunity and without having to worry about its effects on penguins and baby polar bears.
Since I'm so noble and self-sacrificing, you might as well review.