Shahbaaz pulled tight the embroidered sash that bound his robes close about his waist, and nodded to Heera, who stood at attention nearby. She stepped forward, holding out a curved talwar in its sheath attached by stout cords to a wide leather belt. Shahbaaz took the belt and sword from her hands; he kissed the hilt of the sword before strapping it on. At another nod from her father, Heera silently handed him a folded cloth edged with gold and scarlet thread, and watched as he lifted the coil from her arms and slowly, with great deliberation, wound the length about his head, leaving the long end to drape over his shoulder.
"Why so silent, my jewel?" he asked, when the turban was at last wound to his satisfaction.
"Alas! that it is I who must arm you for battle, and not your son and heir!" she said sadly.
With one long step forward, Shahbaaz was at her side; cupping Heera's face in one hand, with the other he caressed her hair tenderly in a slow, soothing motion.
"You are as precious to me as any son, dear heart," Shahbaaz declared. "Do not think otherwise!"
Heera lightly kissed the palm of her father's hand where it rested by her cheek.
"I have no doubts of your regard for me, Father," she replied with a smile. "I rejoice in it, and I am glad that you allow me the honor of arming you. But... I do miss him!"
"Yes," sighed Shahbaaz. "The loss of your brother has left an emptiness in our hearts that cannot be filled."
He frowned suddenly and fiercely. "He will not return to us, but he shall be avenged! The battle to come is the very opportunity for which I have waited so long! Years have passed, but the binding of the blood feud has not lessened; I cannot forget it! Your brother was taken from us by these people, and there is a price to be exacted for that death. That is the way of things."
Heera nodded solemnly.
"Proceed with great care, my father," she said in a low voice. "I do not... I do not wish to lose you as well."
"Do not fear for me, child," said Shahbaaz gently. "You shall not be left alone in the world. I will not fail in this, nor in the other venture. The instrument of my revenge shall also provide the way to good fortune for our people."
"May it be as you say!" sighed Heera.
Shahbaaz stroked her hair once more, lovingly, then patted her cheek and stepped away.
"Are your preparations in order?" he asked.
"Yes," replied Heera, putting aside her grief. "The wains are loaded with healing supplies and the healers stand ready, as do the men assigned to guard us; Kamran is seeing to the final preparations as we speak. We shall follow as soon as you send word of the best place to set our tents -- far enough from the battle for safety, but close enough to be of aid to the wounded."
Shahbaaz nodded, satisfied.
"My riders are gathering outside the encampment; I shall wait with them until the scout comes -- I expect him at any moment. I shall send word to you, when I have heard his report."
Shahbaaz looked at his daughter gravely for a long moment; then laughing suddenly, he held open his arms and Heera ran into them. She embraced him, then kissed him on each cheek.
"Farewell, my father," she said. "May Jahan-afireen, the Maker of the world, watch over you to guard you and keep you safe."
"And you, my daughter," he answered. "May the Maker keep you safe!"
The crossing had gone quickly and smoothly, and Boromir was pleased. The journey from Anduin to the Crossings of Poros was little more than twenty leagues, but he had taken it in two journeys, so as to allow the army to arrive well-rested at an early morning hour.
Faramir and his Rangers had arrived before them, and after consulting with his brother, Boromir gave orders for the army to set up camp among the low-lying hills overlooking the Crossings. Scouts were sent out to gather as much information as they could of the lay of the land and the approaching enemy. Linhir chose the lee of a protected hill on which to set up his tents for the wounded, while Boromir took up his command post atop the Haudh-in-Gwanur, the great mound in which were buried the twin sons of King Folcwine of Rohan, fallen defending Gondor's borders in the time of Turin II, against the very enemy which now threatened them once more.
Shahbaaz waited patiently, tall and silent beside his horse; his men were ordered in ranks behind him. They had arrayed themselves for battle; loosely wound turbans obscured their faces, and long robes were cinched with belts hung with long knives, and swords and talwars that had been oiled and sharpened.
A cloud of dust in the distance heralded the approach of a rider, and there was a stir of anticipation within the group of waiting horsemen; soon they would learn if this was the summons for which they had been waiting -- the summons to war.
The rider approached at a full gallop, reining in his horse at the very last moment. Sliding from the back of the animal, he bowed low and touched his forehead respectfully to the Sardar.
Shahbaaz murmured an acknowledgement of the reverence and bade the man rise and speak. "What do you have to report, my faithful one?"
"The army of Akhbaas the Wicked has passed the final outpost, lord. He follows the road to the Darya-e-Poros."
"Have you news of the army of Gondor?"
"Yes, my lord; the scouts report that Gondor is waiting at the Payaab-e-Poros; they have not ventured to cross at the Fords. They are well-armored, and have many long spears and bowmen."
"Ah!" replied Shahbaaz with a knowing smile. "The one who commands them is wise; he means to draw Akhbaas across the River and fight there, where he has the advantage of the terrain. But will that be enough to help him, I wonder?"
He looked at the messenger keenly, a question in his eyes.
"No, my lord," answered the man. "Their numbers are few compared to those of the approaching army. And though they have knights on horseback, the horses will not stand against the mumak."
"Then the Men of Gondor are easy prey for our friend Akhbaas -- if he does not act foolishly and throw away his advantage with his customary rashness."
Shabaaz looked to the north for a long moment, as if considering his course of action; then he motioned to a young boy who had been waiting at the edge of the ranks of men.
"Go, child. Tell my daughter what you have heard reported here, then go to Kamran of the Healers, and say to him also: the Healers must set their tents where the Darya-e-Poros makes its final bend, north and east, two leagues from the Crossings. The land there is firm, yet well-watered, and safe enough from the battle that is to come. Go now, run!"
As the boy ran to do his bidding, Shahbaaz turned to face his men. He looked at them solemnly, and they returned his gaze, silent and waiting. Suddenly, with a shout, he leapt onto his horse and unsheathed his tulwar.
"It is time, my brothers! You know why we ride; you know our purpose! You know what to do and when to do it: ride swiftly, until we come nigh the River. There we will go carefully, riding in the wake of the army of Akhbaas; the dust of his trampling will hide our full number and keep our presence hidden. Akhbaas will be drawn across the water at Payaab-e-Poros, at the ford of the River; but we do not follow. Our part will be to swim the River downstream and wait in the hills until our moment has come."
He paused for a long moment.
"And then we shall seize our moment!" he cried loudly, for all to hear. "Who shall ride with me?"
As if with one voice, the men gave a great shout of affirmation. Shahbaaz answered with a grin and a shout of his own, as he brandished his sword and waved it in the air.
"Then let us ride, my brothers! Ride now, ride like the wind, to battle and glory and vengeance!"
Boromir waited patiently, tall and silent beside his horse; with him stood Faramir and Grithnir, one on either side. Behind them waited row after row of Rangers and knights and foot soldiers, ordered by company. They were arrayed for battle; bright helms and gleaming armor caught the sunlight below a forest of spears; longbows were strung, arrows were at the ready and swords were loosened in their sheaths.
Looking out from atop the mound where he had taken up his defensive position, Boromir could see the sunlight glittering on the shallow waters of the Poros River, where the road from Harad approached the Fords. He lifted his eyes, and wondered if it was his imagination that made him think he could see a cloud of dust on the distant horizon to the south.
He stirred as a man topped the rise that led from the Fords and made for the top of the mound; an answering stir rippled through the crowd of men behind him, though whether it was one of anticipation or uneasiness, Boromir could not tell. A mixture of both, perhaps, for there was no doubt that this scout would bring them the news which would send them to their assigned postitions, to await the coming battle.
Boromir waited expectantly, as Henderch approached and nodded to his Captain respectfully.
"The other scouts have all returned, my Captain, and I have received their reports."
"Tell me, Henderch."
"The enemy approaches the Crossings, though they are yet some ways off; a full thousand, marching in formation, well-ordered and led by a formidable-looking captain. The remainder are a rabble, but armed fiercely for all that."
Henderch made to speak further, but then he fell silent; shifting his feet, he glanced back from whence he had come. Boromir frowned.
"So what bad news are you withholding from me?" he said sharply.
Henderch turned resolutely to face Boromir once more.
"There is a mumak, my lord."
Boromir was stunned; he had not expected that answer, and before he could stop himself, he cursed, for he was suddenly afraid, and his fear made him very angry. He quickly schooled his face, so that his men would not see his fear, but Faramir sensed his distress, and moved to stand closer beside him.
"How soon?" growled Boromir.
"They should reach the Fords sometime after midday, my lord."
Boromir thought furiously, his mind racing as he discarded strategies and battle plans and replaced them with new ones.
"Very well," he said after a moment, his voice gaining confidence as he spoke. "We have some time to arrange ourselves. I had planned that some of us, at least, would cross and meet them on the other side, before they set foot on Gondor's soil; but with the presence of the mumak... No, I think it would be best to remain on this side of the Poros, where we have the advantage of the hilly terrain and can guard the Fords closely. We do not want the River at our backs if we are facing a mumak; better that they have the River behind them if they dare to cross. As they approach, the River will be between us for a time; then our longbowmen will serve us well. Faramir?"
Faramir nodded as he listened to the rapid outlining of his brother's battle plan.
"Yes, I believe that would be better," he agreed. "Henderch, do horsemen ride with the army?"
"No, my lord Faramir," replied Henderch. "The scouts have not sighted any men on horseback."
"That is well!" responded Boromir, relieved. "An experienced cavalry could have come upon us unawares behind our own lines, by swimming the River downstream where it is too deep for footmen, but not for horses. Troops on foot will be forced to cross here, and it is here we shall meet them."
He nodded decisively and turned to Henderch.
"Set your scouts to alert us as soon as the enemy comes within three leagues of the Fords. Grithnir, relay word to each company that the men may stand at ease for the time being, but they should remain alert and ready to move out at a moment's notice. Have each company commander report to me here. There is much to discuss!"
Turning aside, he gestured to one of his men standing nearby. "Arthad! See that Linhir knows of this turn of events. A guard of bowmen and spearmen will be assigned to the Healers' camp, to fence them in should the enemy break through in their direction."
As his men strode away to do his bidding, Boromir drew Faramir aside.
"Stay close, my brother," he cautioned. "I shall need all your wisdom and support now as we set our plans in order. I know what is to be done, but I need you by me now to keep me steady and hold back the despair that threatens."
"Can we truly prevail against such odds?" asked Faramir, concerned.
"I do not know how we may prevail," replied Boromir with a slight shrug of his shoulders. "But I do know that we must -- and therefore we shall! There can be no failing!"
They turned as one and looked southwards, across the glimmering waters of the Poros, to the cloud of dust on the horizon that seemed to hover ominously, though it grew no larger.
"May the Valar protect us and bring us through what is to come!" breathed Faramir fervently. "Bring us through, indeed!" repeated Boromir solemnly. "May our strength and our might be sufficient to keep Gondor safe -- and whole!"
Terms used in this chapter:
Talwar = sword Jahan-afireen = Creator of the world Darya-e-Poros = River Poros Payaab-e-Poros = Ford of Poros