The rider reined in his horse upon reaching the crest of the hill and unfurled the banner he carried. The color and emblem emblazoned upon the banner declared him to be a messenger bearing news from the frontier outposts. The bright cloth fluttered and snapped in the breeze, and the messenger nodded in satisfaction; his banner was visible from the tents in the valley below, and soon an escort would come to bring him into the encampment.
It was only a matter of moments before the messenger saw two horsemen riding towards him at a gallop; the answering color of their banner confirmed him as welcome, and acknowledged him as one of their own. He spurred his horse forward and rode down to meet them.
"You bear news from the southern borders?" asked the lead rider, after they had exchanged greetings.
"Yes; I have been sent with a message for the Sardar."
"Come with us; he awaits in his tent, and is eager to hear your news."
The settlement was large, and housed more than one hundred horsemen and their women and children; it was truly a small city, though the houses were tents and the streets were packed dirt lined with painted stones. The tent of the Sardar was larger and more richly decorated than the other tents, for he was the chieftain of this tribe. His device was a falcon with talons extended; and his name matched his device: Shahbaaz, the Falcon, hawk of kings. He was not a king, but he ruled as one, and claimed lordship over this land between the rivers.
The Falcon waited patiently as the messenger entered and bowed before him reverently.
"You are welcome, faithful one. Speak now, and hold nothing back. What is your news?"
"I am come from the Third Outpost, my lord," replied the messenger with a final bow. "This message has been relayed from the First Outpost at Darya-e-Harnen. Our watchers there send word that a large force from Harad has crossed the River, heading north along the Harad Road."
Shahbaaz cursed loudly and at length.
"So soon? The alliance is still young! Surely the Dark One is not yet amassing his armies for the conquest of the northern lands! I would have received word of such a thing, surely!"
He frowned fiercely. "I wonder... A large force, you say. How large?"
"A thousand men on foot, my lord; perhaps a few hundreds more or less. A mumak is with them, but only one."
"A thousand... and only one mumak? Who leads them? Do you know this?"
"Yes, my lord. The messenger from the First Outpost knew the man who leads them, for he has often passed through our land; it is Akhbaas, leader of the tribes that dwell near the Darya-e-Harnen."
"Ahhhh!" sighed the Sardar. "Akhbaas the Wicked, my old friend!"
He grinned suddenly, and there was a glint in his eye that made the messenger step back a pace.
"Yes, this one is known to me... well known to me! We have had dealings together from time to time."
Rising to his feet, Shahbaaz paced back and forth across the bright carpet that covered the dirt floor of the tent, muttering under his breath as he paced.
"A thousand men on foot and a single mumak... the Dark One would have need of many more than this, when the call comes for his allies to gather. I think this must be a march for some other purpose."
He whirled around suddenly and pointed a long finger at the messenger.
"Tell me! Do these men march in orderly fashion?"
"They march in several ordered companies, my lord, and the mumak is attached to one of those companies. The others with them march in no order, with no captain at their head. It has the look of a private war, my lord."
"Yes..." said Shahbaaz, drawing out the word slowly. "So! My old friend sees his chance, does he? He feels strong now, with strong new friends, and wishes to take advantage of the weakness of the pale men of Gondor. He will strike unlooked for where their defense is weak, and deal them a blow they will be hard pressed to counter. His new Master will be impressed with him, and perhaps reward him handsomely!"
He stroked his beard thoughtfully.
"Rash, very rash, my friend!" he murmured, with a shake of his head. "Always it has been so with you... yet it is also often true that to the bold go the spoils! I wonder if there may be a part for me in this, that could work to my advantage...?"
Shahbaaz looked up abruptly and spoke to the messenger.
"Rest here this night; visit your wife, greet your children. On the morrow you will be sent with messages to the other camps in the surrounding area, with word for the other riders to gather here. Then you will return to your post. How many days before our friend Akhbaas passes into the territory overseen by your watchtower?"
"Three days, perhaps; he does not hurry. I can return easily to my post before he passes."
"Good! Send word to me when he has passed you by. That will give me time enough to do what must be done."
With a wave of his hand, Shahbaaz dismissed the messenger. No sooner had the man left the tent, than another man entered and bowed to the Sardar.
"Do you have any orders for me, my lord?"
"Yes; I wish to be alone now, for there is much I need to consider; my daughter will serve me if I need anything. See to it that we are not disturbed."
"Yes, my lord."
Shahbaaz resumed his pacing; silence reigned in the tent but for the sound of his booted feet on the carpet and the swish of his robes as he turned to and fro.
"Heera, my jewel!" he called out, after some time had passed. "Attend me!"
A curtain at the back of the tent lifted, and a young woman entered from an adjoining chamber, carrying a jug and goblet. When she saw that the two of them were alone, she pushed back the shawl that covered her head and unfastened her veil, to reveal the face of a very handsome young woman. Her black hair was pulled back in a braid tied with gold string that matched her dangling earrings and complemented the tiny diamond nosering that glittered on her nose.
She smiled and shook her head at the sight of her father striding restlessy about the tent. She waited patiently for him to pause and take notice of her. He looked up at last and smiled a welcome, but without pause; the pacing continued.
"Did you hear the news brought by the messenger?" Shahbaaz asked.
"Yes, I heard, Father," his daughter replied, as she poured out wine. "Sit, and stop your pacing. I cannot attend you if you are moving about like this!"
He laughed and seated himself on a low stool; the young woman handed him the brimming goblet and watched him drain it.
"What are you thinking, my father?"
"I am thinking, Heera, my daughter, that here is the moment for which we have been waiting; it has been a long time coming! If I am not deceived, fortune may be turning to our favor at last."
Heera looked at him thoughtfully.
"Fortune has already favored us, Father," she replied slowly. "We lack for nothing, and we are at peace."
"For now, we are at peace, child; but that will change -- and soon. New alliances are being made, and new friendships are being formed, and we must move with that tide, like it or not."
Heera sighed; setting down her jug, she knelt beside her father's stool, and leaned against him, as she pondered the matter. Her father smiled and stroked her dark hair as he waited for her answer.
"You are right, Father," she said at last. "As usual! This could very well be the chance you have been looking for... but you must go carefully, especially where that man Akhbaas is concerned. He is ambitious, and is not to be trusted!"
"Well I know it, my daughter!" He patted her face tenderly. "Do not fear for me; I will go carefully. But boldness is also required! We shall see where this leads, and if matters go where I think they will go, then we must be prepared to seize our chance. It is time to settle some old scores and set some new alliances in place, alliances that will benefit our people and establish us in this place we call our home."
Heera sighed again, and shook her head.
"When you talk in this manner, Father, I know there will be work for me to do! I will prepare my healing herbs and salves and ointments; and the women will see to the cutting of bandages. To the bold go the spoils, but in my experience, the one who strikes the blow of boldness is often wounded in the bargain!"
Denethor gazed at his eldest son as he stood before him, dressed for war; he felt a flush of pride at the way Boromir held himself straight and tall, and smiled at the eagerness in his face and his voice as he gave his report of the final preparations for battle.
"I leave within the hour, Father," Boromir said. "One hundred horse go with me by the South Road to Pelargir. We should reach the city on the morrow, if we travel by night; we shall make haste, but the horses must not be over-exerted. Word has been sent for foot soldiers to muster there, as many as can be spared from the defense of the southern regions. Even as few as seven hundred men might be sufficient, with my horsemen and Faramir's Rangers."
"I have received word that Faramir arrived in Ithilien late yesterday evening," said Denethor. "How many additional men was he able to gather to add to the number of Rangers already posted there?"
"Twenty at the most, I would say," answered Boromir.
"Not many," mused Denethor with a frown. "Let us hope that more men will join you in Pelargir from the Southern regions. I, too, have sent what messages I could, seeking aid for the battle to come."
Denethor paused, looking at Boromir thoughtfully.
"What are your thoughts on Faramir's ability to lead his men into battle of this kind?" he asked at length. "He has done well enough in campaigns of stealth and secrecy, harrying the enemy from a secure and secret location -- but this is open battle, marching to meet an enemy which knows you are coming, and is prepared to fight you on the open field. Are you certain he is capable of that level of leadership?"
"Of course, Father!" Boromir answered, his tone full of confidence. "He is a most capable captain, of that I can assure you! He will not fail you."
Denethor looked doubtful.
"He will not fail you, Father," Boromir repeated firmly. "Do not doubt his ability or his determination to succeed. For myself, I have no doubts. I am glad he will be with me, for I fight better with him at my side."
"Very well, Boromir," replied Denethor with a satisfied nod. "Look after him, then; see that he learns from you the way of battle on the open field, for I need him to be strong in all aspects of warfare. This will be a good test for him; I trust you are right, and he will prove capable indeed."
"I will look after him," promised Boromir solemnly, with a slight bow. "Of that you can be certain!"
The chamberlain entered the Hall from a side door. After a deferential bow to the Steward, he spoke to Boromir.
"Your man Grithnir sends word that the knights are gathered, and your horse is saddled and ready, my lord Boromir."
Boromir nodded once to the man.
"I will be there shortly," he replied. "Tell Grithnir to wait; I have only a few more matters to discuss with my father."
"Yes, lord," answered the chamberlain, and he hurried out.
Boromir turned to his father.
"Do you have any further word from your agent on the movement of the enemy?"
Denethor was silent for a moment before answering.
"No, nothing more; only that which is already known to us: the force is large, perhaps a thousand men on foot."
"No men on horseback?"
Denethor shook his head.
Denethor hesitated, then shook his head again. "None that could be seen by... my agent."
Boromir nodded and smiled broadly.
"We should do well, then, even if we are outnumbered. We shall have the advantage. They will not expect us to know of their coming."
Stepping forward, Boromir laid a hand on his father's shoulder where he sat in his stone chair, and gave him an affectionate shake.
"Fear not, Father! I am confident of success in this matter. We shall turn back the enemy and return to you victorious."
"See to it then, my son," replied Denethor with a nod. "Turn them back, and bring me a victory!"
Terms used in this chapter:
Sardar = Chieftain Darya-e-Harnen = River Harnen Shahbaaz = falcon Akhbaas = wicked Heera = diamond