Boromir did not like waiting.
This was a pleasant enough place in which to do it, but the agreeableness of the spot did little to ease the frustration of the enforced delay. It was natural for Boromir to feel some impatience, for he was eager to proceed with his mission -- but even more than that, he was worried about the reason for the delay. The scouts were late in returning, and that was cause for concern.
Boromir stood concealed at the top of a wooded ridge overlooking the Southward Road, as it wound its way past the outlying hills of Emyn Arnen into Southern Ithilien and beyond. His men waited with him, hidden here and there among the trees. They would not move on until they had received the signal that all was clear on the Road. This wooded area was the last place of concealment for some miles; once they descended the ridge, they would be exposed, for the terrain on either side of the Road was open and barren of cover, and anyone moving through the area could easily be spotted by a watchful enemy. If they could cross the Road safely and secretly, they could once again find some refuge in the woodlands that ascended the foothills of the Ephel Dúath, east of the road.
Ithilien on the very borders of Mordor was a land claimed by the Enemy, but it was not yet overrun. Although Orcs and other enemies roamed the forests between mountain and River, and the presence of evil and danger was felt throughout the land, passage was still possible if one went with great care. And such care was needed; Boromir's company was small -- twenty men only -- and they could not afford a skirmish with a larger enemy troop.
Boromir wondered if twenty men would be sufficient for the mission at hand. Their task seemed straightforward enough: find the hidden fastness of Fennas Haradren, one of the bases established years before by the long-sighted Steward Túrin II. Fennas Haradren served as an outpost for forayers who harried the enemy in Ithilien and kept a foothold for Gondor in this occupied land. It had fallen into disuse over the years, because of its location on the very borders of Mordor and its distance from Minas Tirith; but several years before, the Lord Denethor had sent a small contingent of Rangers to occupy the outpost at Fennas Haradren. The group had been too small to do much more than provide information on the movement of Orcs and Haradrim in the area, but that information had often proved valuable.
But now there was the possibility of trouble. Faramir, as Captain of the Rangers of Ithilien at Henneth Annun, had dealt often with the Rangers at Fennas Haradren; he had sent word that an unusual amount of time had passed since he last had any report or contact from the outpost. He feared the worst. Rather than pull any men away from their assignment in Northern Ithilien, Denethor had chosen to send Boromir and a company of twenty men to investigate.
Boromir saw the wisdom in taking such a small group, for they could move with ease and remain unobserved, in a land patrolled by Orcs and other enemies. But he was concerned about the possibility of meeting a large troop of the enemy on the way, and about what they might find when they arrived at the outpost; it could go ill for his small company if they came under attack. It was Boromir's task as Captain to see that this did not happen, if he could prevent it.
So they waited for news, and Boromir worried.
He heard a light step behind him. Turning quickly, he saw a man approaching; it was Grithnir, his lieutenant.
"Is there any news, Grithnir?"
"No, my Captain. The scouts have not yet returned."
"Very well," Boromir replied heavily.
"Should we proceed without their report? The Road is clear as far as we can see from here on the ridge. The scouts will be able to pick up our trail and follow after, if they come late."
"I hesitate to risk the crossing without their report," replied Boromir, after a moment of thought. "It is true, the Road seems clear from this vantage point, but it will not do to be caught suddenly in the open. The scouting party may be delayed because of an enemy we cannot see from here, and that means we would be putting ourselves in danger by crossing now. The day is yet young; we can wait a while longer."
Grithnir nodded, and went to inform the waiting men of their captain's decision.
Boromir waited until Grithnir was out of earshot before he heaved a long sigh; it helped a little to curb his impatience. He was irritated at the delay, but he could not show it; it was pointless to be angry. But why were they taking so long? Fear that the scouts had run into trouble assailed him. Always it was this way! He sent out his scouts, and then waited in fear and impatience until they returned. Such was the duty of a captain: to order his men into danger, and then to bear with reasonably good grace the waiting time that followed.
To ease the wait, Boromir turned back to his lookout.
Northward he cast his eye, where the ridge sloped down into a shallow valley until it rose again in another ridge like the one upon which he stood. Off in the distance he could see the darker green of the forests of Northern Ithilien.
Turning his glance southward, he saw the ribbon of the Road winding its way under the shadow of the mountains to the east, until it was lost behind the bend of the ridge. Far beyond, on the horizon, he thought he could descry a spur of mountain jutting out into the plain; somewhere in those distant peaks was the outpost of the Southern Door, Fennas Haradren.
Eastward, then, Boromir's eyes were drawn -- though reluctantly. There the Mountains of Shadow reared up sharply in front of him, backlit by the ever-present red glow of the fiery mountain behind. The Mount of Doom was hardly more than 30 leagues from where he stood, as the crow might fly -- far enough away, perhaps, yet still too close to be completely ignored.
A small rill ran through their hiding place, tumbling over rocks and tree roots to the valley below. Boromir knelt to drink from the shallow brook; he remained alert, scooping up the water and drinking from his hand, all the while keeping his eyes trained on the Road below, as he listened for the sound of returning feet.
The early morning breeze quickened and there was a soughing and sighing in the trees. The leaves fluttered overhead, their undersides flashing silver in the light of the sun as it rose above the clouds that hung over the land of Mordor. The day was advancing, and still no word came of the scouting party.
The call of a bird echoed along the ridge, and Boromir stood suddenly still and alert at the sound. The call was answered by another, then by a third.
Boromir smiled. At last!
Even as he turned away from the edge of the bluff, he saw Grithnir approaching.
"Have they come? Is all well?"
"Yes, my Captain. The scouts have returned safely, and are ready to make their report."
"Excellent!" Boromir spoke calmly, but inwardly he was greatly relieved at the news. "Bring them to me. And tell the others to join us here. We will hear the report together and decide our next course of action."
"Yes, my lord Boromir."
The men gathered quickly, for all were eager to hear the report of the scout detail. The chief scout, a man named Henderch, stood before Boromir, awaiting his nod to begin speaking.
"Forgive the delay, my lord Captain," said Henderch, when all were present. "We were forced to wait in hiding to avoid being seen by Orc scouts that were passing northwards. They did not see us; we followed them at a distance for a time to be certain they would not trouble us. Do not fear; the Orcs are no longer of any concern to us, for they have moved on. There is no sign of any other movement, on the Road or on either side of it, for ten leagues in either direction. The way is clear."
"Very good," replied Boromir, pleased. "We will proceed, then."
Boromir drew out a rolled map and laid it out on the ground, and Grithnir weighted the edges with a few stones.
"Faramir drew this map for me," Boromir explained. "It is sketchy, for he has not personally visited Fennas Haradren, but he is familiar with its general location. Henderch has looked at the map and confirms it to be sufficiently accurate. As you know, Henderch is the only one of us to have ever visited the outpost, so we will be relying upon his knowledge once we draw nigh to the secret path. The purpose of this map is to show you roughly where we are headed."
Boromir tapped the parchment with his finger.
"Our way of approach will be directly from the north, through Southern Itilien as far as the foothills here, where a spur of the mountain range extends out into the plain. I would estimate it to be roughly a quarter of the way between here and the crossing at the River Poros."
The men nodded in understanding.
"We might be there by dusk, if we hurry," continued Boromir. "We will cross the Road, in groups of five. Grithnir, you and Henderch will go with the first group; I shall follow with the last. When all are safely across, we will proceed through the woods until we reach the edge of the Mountains of Shadow."
One of the men stirred, and Boromir glanced his way and nodded.
"Yes, it is rare for men of Gondor to pass east of the Road in these dangerous times, and to walk in the very shadow of the Ephel Dúath is almost unheard of. But that is our path, if we are to find the Southern Door, and discover what is amiss. See that your flasks are filled with water before we leave this ridge. We shall have to move quickly once we cross to the other side of the Road, and we cannot stop, then, even for water. If I have my bearings and this map is accurate, we will reach no good stream until nightfall. Are there any questions?"
None were forthcoming, and Boromir was pleased; the men were as ready as he to move on. He pushed aside the stones on the edges of the map; it rolled up again with a sharp crackle of parchment.
"Let us be on our way."
A thorny branch of scrub dragged at Boromir's cloak as he led the way across a rocky outcropping; he clicked his tongue in irritation, as he yanked the edge free. Here on the slopes of the Mountains of Shadow, the land was drier and more barren. The scattered woodlands had failed upon reaching the Ephel Dúath; there was now only scrub and stunted trees to give them shelter.
He saw Henderch approaching through the underbrush. Since he had been stationed for a time at the outpost of Fennas Haradren and knew the secret approach to the door, he had gone on ahead to scout out the passage through the mountains. Boromir stopped and waited for him to draw near, as the rest of the men gathered round.
"We are close now," said Henderch. He took a quick swig of water from his flask before going on. "You will have noticed how the mountains seem to turn and cut across our path ahead; the way is there. It climbs steeply up to a cleft that cannot be seen from below, a few leagues west of where the spur joins the main mass of the mountains."
"The door is on the north side of the hills?" asked Grithnir.
"Yes," nodded Henderch. "The name means Southern Door, but the door does not truly face south." He shrugged. "Perhaps it is named thus because Fennas Haradren was the southernmost of the secret places."
"Did you go as far as the Secret Door?" queried Boromir.
Henderch shook his head. "I went as far as I dared go alone. There is no sign that anyone has passed that way for some time; it has a deserted look."
A hiss of dread passed Boromir's lips before he could stop it.
"That does not bode well," he said darkly. "We must tarry no longer; it is imperative that we discover what has happened to our people there."
He looked westwards towards the setting sun, where the long shadows of scattered woodlands stretched out towards them across the undulating plains of Southern Ithilien. They were high enough on the mountain slope that Boromir thought he could see off in the distance the glint of the Anduin as it curved away towards Pelargir and the Great Bay.
"It will be safe to approach now, I think," he said after a moment. "Darkness will be upon us by the time we reach the cleft."
Boromir turned and faced his men, looking each of them in the eye as he spoke.
"We do not know what to expect here, so we must be on our guard at all times. Only Henderch is familiar with the path, so he will go first, and I with him. Grithnir?"
Boromir's lieutenant stepped forward and gave his orders. "The archers will follow my lord Boromir; have your bows to hand and keep an arrow to the string. You others, draw your swords, and follow as you will; I will serve as rearguard."
He turned to Boromir.
"The men are ready."
Boromir drew his own sword, and nodded his own readiness.
"Lead on, Henderch."
The path up the mountainside was difficult, especially in the darkness, but they dared not light a torch for fear of being seen by unfriendly eyes. They climbed slowly and carefully and at last came to the cleft that would take them to the door. The wind off the mountainside whistled coldly through the roofless passage and sounded strangely like voices shrieking and wailing. Boromir strove not to think of it as a bad omen.
"It is safe enough to light a torch now," announced Henderch, "if tinder will catch in this wind. We are protected from being seen from above and below."
Several torches were lit, in spite of the stiff breeze, and the company proceeded through the narrow passage formed by sheer rock on either side, until they came to broad area that opened up like an antechamber before the door of a great hall of men. The wind whistled behind them in the cleft, but could no longer reach them here, for the area was protected from the wind by an overhanging slab of rock, and by the walls on either side. The doors of Fennas Haradren stood before them, tall and dark in the flickering torchlight.
But those doors stood ajar -- they had been ripped from their hinges and hung mangled and awry. The men stared in dismay at the sight. Henderch gave a strangled cry as he motioned for a torch to be held up for better light.
"My lord!" he cried, pointing to a figure that lay in the shadows, half in and half out of the open doorway.
Boromir stepped forward, and cursed angrily.
There lay a man -- or what was left of a man, dressed in the garb of a Ranger of Gondor. He was dead, and had been so for some time.
He had been torn limb from limb.
Boromir and his men stared down at the dismembered body with shocked dismay. When he could at last speak, Boromir's voice was thick with sorrow and apprehension.
"I feared this," he sighed, as he knelt beside the dead man. "There was no challenge as we came, no sentry on duty..."
Boromir's voice trailed off as he reached out and gently touched the body before him. Suddenly, he clenched his fist angrily and abruptly stood.
"Grithnir!" he cried sharply. "Get this door open! Archers! To me! We go in to secure the hall!"
The men were galvanized into action. Grithnir gestured and several men rushed forward to wrestle the mangled doors aside. Two archers appeared at Boromir's side, their bows drawn. Snatching a torch from the hand of the man who carried it, Henderch stepped forward.
"I will go first," he said firmly. "I still remember the layout of this place, and I know where to look for a hidden enemy."
"Go, then; these marksmen will cover you. I will come directly behind." Boromir turned to the rest of the men. "You others with bows come behind me and the rest follow as you are able. We may find the enemy has fled, but we cannot be certain, so be on your guard."
The doors fell aside with a crash and a clatter, and the odor of death flowed out in a wave. Henderch darted inside and men with drawn bows leapt after him. Boromir waited for a brief moment, then followed quickly, Grithnir close at his elbow.
There was a wide, high passage just inside the doorway that ran for twenty paces, then opened out suddenly into a large and lofty cavern, dim and full of shadows cast by the torchlight.
There was no sound in the hall but the shuddering flutter of the torches, the shuffle of men's feet as they moved quickly through the chamber in their search for signs of the enemy, and the faint trickle of water dripping into a pool, somewhere in the darkness at the back of the cavern. The pungent smell of dried blood was strong in the room.
In the flickering light, Boromir could see that many men lay dead. The room was littered with the smashed remains of tables, stools, and broken bodies. Boromir knelt and inspected the wounds of one of the dead men.
"What enemy has done this?" asked Grithnir, kneeling at his side. "Orcs?"
"Nay!" replied Boromir with a shake of his head. "This is not Orc work. There are no sword wounds, no black arrows, no Orc bodies..."
Boromir reached out and pulled a sword from the iron grip of the dead man; the torchbearer who attended him held the torch closer so that he could inspect the weapon.
"See?" said Boromir. "This man had a sword in his hand, so they were not so taken by surprise that there was no defense attempted. There would surely have been a few dead Orcs lying about if those foul creatures had been the enemy here."
He fingered the weapon, and then brought it up close to his nose.
"The smell is wrong," Boromir said, shaking his head. "It is not Orc blood that stains this blade."
"There are men yonder who look as though they have been trampled," said the torchbearer, a man named Arthad. "It is as if some large animal did this."
"I wonder..." Boromir said thoughtfully. "That might explain why all the dead are within; there are no bodies outside. The door wardens and the sentries must have been called in to aid in the fight and been killed as well. But how did such a creature gain access, if creature it was?"
Henderch approached from the far side of the room, stepping carefully over the dead.
"The upper level is clear," he announced. "We have searched the main hall, as well as the side chambers. There are none left alive and no sign of an enemy, other than the destruction and the dead who remain..."
There was an odd note in his voice, and Boromir noticed it immediately.
"What is it, Henderch?" he said sharply. "What have you found?"
Henderch swallowed hard before replying.
"Some of the bodies, my lord... they show signs of having been eaten."
"Eaten..." Boromir's voice was flat. "Yes, that would fit with what we have discovered here."
He stood and gripped Henderch's shoulder briefly.
"There is a lower level, then?" Boromir continued after a moment. "How far does that cave extend?"
"It is not large; a wide passage down, then a main chamber, several side chambers, and a few small rooms which serve for storage."
Boromir turned to Grithnir.
"Grithnir, go with Henderch; take ten men with you. Proceed cautiously to the next level and search there, in groups of two or three; no man should go anywhere alone. The creature that has done this thing may still be here somewhere on the lower level."
"Yes, my Captain."
While he awaited the report of the search party, Boromir busied himself with trying to identify as many of the dead as he could, gazing into each face, or gently touching a body in a moment of silence for each fallen comrade. It was a gruesome task, but a necessary one for Boromir; it was his habit to pay his respects in this way after every battle, if at all possible. It made the weight of the burden of death and loss somewhat easier to bear.
At last the search party returned; they stood at attention until Boromir had turned away from the dead with a sigh.
"There are only a few more dead on the lower level," answered Grithnir. "It would seem the main battle took place here. The lower level is clear, but for one thing. There is evidence that a creature of some sort entered the main cavern through a passage at the back of one of the storerooms. There has been a fall of rock, and a passage is open now that was not there before."
Boromir looked inquiringly at Henderch.
"Yes, my lord. There was no such passage when I was last here. This cavern outpost was self-contained; there were no outlets to other caves."
Boromir stepped over a pile of rubble at the opening of the passageway, and peered into the darkness. He could see nothing except a litter of gnawed bones on the floor of the cavernous corridor. He beckoned to Arthad and took the torch from him; holding it aloft, he inspected the rock above and to the side of the opening.
"Yes, it is obvious there was some kind of cave-in here, and a new passage was opened." He knelt in the dust and traced with a gloved finger a shape in the dust. "There is a track here. I have not seen anything like this before; a toeless foot, very large. The creature must be immense."
He looked up at Grithnir and Henderch.
"Did you search this passage?"
"No," replied Grithnir. "We did not wish to disturb anything until we had reported back to you."
"You have done well. I fear such a creature is best left undisturbed as long as possible. I do not wish to join the ranks of the dead here."
"What shall we do now, my Captain?" Grithnir asked. "It is many hours before dawn; do we leave now while we can? Or do we set a watch and take our rest as best we can, before departing?"
Boromir thought for a moment before answering.
"I am loath to depart before knowing the final answer to the riddle of what transpired here, but it would be the wisest course. We are twenty men only. We dare not attempt..."
Boromir's words were drowned out suddenly by a deafening roar from the depths of the dark corridor.
"Get back!" Boromir shouted. "To the upper level, quickly! It is coming! Grithnir, lead them out!"
The men turned and ran for the upper hall. They could hear the sounds of pursuit behind them; the roaring of the creature echoed in the cavern above them until it seemed as though they were surrounded, and their ears rang painfully from the sound. They reached the upper level and ran for the exit. Boromir came last, and though the creature seemed close on his heels, he could not resist the urge to look back for a glimpse of what followed them. Turning back, he held up his torch, straining to see through the gloom.
Arthad tugged at his sleeve.
"Do not tarry, my lord! I beg you!"
"I am coming, Arthad; do not fear."
But it was too late. With a roar, the creature burst into the main hall, its massive arms swinging as it searched to crush those who had disturbed it.
"A cave troll!" breathed Boromir in horror. It all made sense, now.
It was indeed a cave troll, of that Boromir was certain. He had never before seen one, but he had heard of them, and knew enough to recognize one when he saw it. Solitary creatures, shunning the light and the surface, they lived and hunted in deep caverns. They were reputed to be under the sway of the Dark Lord, but they were dangerous enough on their own, if disturbed or encountered by chance.
This troll was huge -- at least sixteen feet in height. Its body was covered with a hard, rock-like hide that seemed to be of a greenish hue, though it was hard to tell in the light of the flickering torch. The head of the creature was absurdly small in relation to the rest of its body, but when it roared in its fury, the maw opened wide enough to engulf a child or even a small man.
Boromir stood staring at the troll and could not turn away. He had never before seen a creature of such great size. Even as death approached, he found himself thinking furiously of what must have happened. This cave troll must have found its way to the surface after the cave-in opened the passage on the lower level; its attack had taken the outpost by surprise. In its anger and hunger, the troll had even dared to enter the main hall and attack the doors to the outside. Its nearness to the surface would not have been a hindrance to the creature if it had been night when it attacked. Nor would it be hindered now.
"My lord Boromir!" cried Arthad, and at his shout, the others turned back. Boromir awoke from his preoccupation and leapt aside, as the troll aimed a massive fist at him.
"To me!" Boromir cried to his men as he fell.
They were there before he hit the floor; the archers loosed their arrows and the troll was turned aside. Grithnir dragged Boromir back and helped him to his feet.
"I am a fool!" growled Boromir, angry with himself for hanging back and endangering himself and his men. He threw down the torch which unaccountably he still held in his grasp, and drew his sword. "Now we are committed to a fight!"
The troll's terrific roaring filled the hall as it was struck by arrows and cut by thrusts of the sword. Men darted in and out, stabbing at the legs of the troll, or jumping in close to aim an arrow at a vulnerable spot. It was like a strange sort of dance, grueling and endless.
The troll began to tire, but so did the men. Grithnir was swept off his feet as he ducked under the troll's long arm to aim a blow at the back of its leg; flying across the room, he landed heavily against the far wall and slumped to the floor. Boromir gave a wordless shout of dismay, but he could not reach his lieutenant, for the troll stood between them.
At last, the troll stumbled, groping at its eye where it had been penetrated by an arrow.
"Henderch! Arthad!" Boromir cried, leaping forward.
Together they attacked the troll from behind, aiming their blows at the back of its leg, as Grithnir had attempted to do; the sword thrusts finally penetrated the thick hide of the troll, and the ligament at the back of the leg was cut. The troll staggered and fell; its leg could no longer hold its weight. As soon as the troll was down, men leaped upon it with their swords, and the battle was over.
Boromir ran to Grithnir; the man sat up with a groan as he approached. Boromir put a hand under his elbow and helped his lieutenant to his feet.
"Are you badly hurt?"
"No," replied Grithnir shakily. "I shall keep well enough. Is it over?"
Boromir turned and gazed at the body of the cave troll which lay in the center of the room like a great mound of earth; dust still swirled in the air, dimming the light of the burning torches. Looking beyond, he saw his men gathering their arrows and cleaning their swords, and he realized they were all accounted for -- no one had been lost in the battle with the troll.
Boromir pushed back the hair from his eyes and blew out a loud sigh of relief.
"Yes, Grithnir. It is indeed over."
Grithnir straightened slowly and brushed himself off. Looking at Boromir, he smiled suddenly and gripped his shoulder.
"Well, my captain!" he said with a short laugh. "Perhaps when next you meet a cave troll, you'll not linger so long to look at it."
"When next I meet a cave troll!" exclaimed Boromir. "There will be no such time! I trust I shall never have to face another such creature again; once is surely is enough for me!"
He smiled ruefully and shook his head.
"Yet you are right to chide me for lingering," he said to Grithnir. "In future, I shall strive to be less curious and more mindful of my duty to my men. But now, if you are once more steady on your feet, we have a last duty to perform for our fallen comrades. We ought not linger here, though the troll be dead; yet we cannot depart until we have laid them to rest in proper fashion."
In reverent silence the men worked to lay out the fallen Rangers in seemly fashion, with gear and weapons to hand; at Boromir's order the men set aside one token from each body to be returned to family members who waited for news of their loved ones. By the time they had finished, day had dawned, though only a dim grey light penetrated the entrance, and did little to push aside the darkness and gloom of the cavern.
When all had been done that could be done, Boromir spoke solemn words of tribute over the bodies; his voice was rough with suppressed emotion as he named each man and recalled some brave deed for which he had been renowned. Some of Boromir's men asked leave to say a word as well for those they had known, while others wept openly, lamenting the loss of a friend, an uncle, a brother.
Then they gathered their own gear, and took up their torches, and left the dead to their long sleep.
As they approached the broken doors at the entrance to the cavern, Boromir hesitated, glancing back for one last look upon the dead. Grithnir and Arthad were immediately at his side.
"My lord, they have been avenged," said Arthad. "And they have been laid to rest by their comrades in arms; you can do no more for them now that you have not already done."
"You speak truly, Arthad," replied Boromir heavily. "Yet still I feel the weight of their loss."
Boromir now faced the dark doorway and spoke softly into the silent room beyond.
"Farewell, my brothers! Your loved ones will know of your honorable sacrifice on their behalf, in defense of this outpost against a formidable enemy. You shall be held long in our memory and our love, and your deeds shall be renowned in song. Farewell."
He turned away with a heavy sigh, and nodded sharply to the two men who waited with him.
"I am ready now," he said. "Let us be gone from here. Seal the entrance."
"Will Lord Denethor station men here again?" asked Grithnir quietly, as Boromir and his men made their way carefully along the mountainous path.
"No," replied Boromir. "It would not be fitting, nor would it be wise. Even if it were not now the tomb of good men of Gondor, it would be better, rather, to concentrate our defenses at Henneth Annûn, Cair Andros, and at Osgiliath and the Causeway forts. That is where the hard push will come. Fennas Haradren is too far away to be of use any longer, and where one troll entered, another may follow. We have sealed the entrance as best we could, with what tools we had; but I shall send more men to seal it properly and set a watch on this place, to be certain no minions of Mordor find their way through the tunnels to dishonor our dead. Fennas Haradren can no longer serve as an outpost of Gondor."
He resisted the temptation to look back in regret.
"At least we have avenged them," Boromir murmured; the words brought him some comfort and gave him strength to put his regret aside.
It was time to move on.