Heera lifted an edge of the heavy cloth enclosing the wain in which she was riding, and looked out through the narrow gap at the surrounding landscape. The plain over which they rode was flat and featureless, but off in the distance she could see low hills against the sky, marking the border between the plain and the more fertile land which sloped down from the hills northwards to the River.
She shifted her position in order to look to the east. Far ahead, she thought she could discern a cloud of dust against the backdrop of blue mountain peaks -- the foothills of the Koh-e-Zulmat, the Mountains of Shadow. It was too far for her to see her father's horsemen, who rode within that cloud, but she knew they were there. Soon they would reach the Road where it made a wide turn westwards to skirt the outthrust spur of the mountains. Heera knew it was there they hoped to come up behind the army of Akhbaas, which had already passed that way; to travel in its wake until they could cut away and cross the River, approaching the field of battle from an unexpected direction.
The healers' wains, on the other hand, were taking a shorter way through the hills to the north, so as to avoid the larger army passing along the Road. It would be a rougher road for the wains, laden as they were with tents, poles and supplies for the use of the healers. But the way was passable with care, and would bring them to the River in good time to set up the tents and make all things ready for the treating of the wounded. The riders who accompanied them had already received a scout's report that the way was clear through the hills, and they could proceed without further delay.
The turf over which they traveled was short grass mixed with a ground cover of tiny purple buds; the small flowers brightened the landscape with color, in spite of the obscuring dust that hung heavy in the air, kicked up by the plodding hooves of oxen and the wheels of the wains. The smell of dust bit at the back of Heera's throat, and brought a bitter taste to her mouth, filtering through even the covered sides of the wain and the folds of cloth which shielded her mouth and nose.
There was movement beside her, and a cautioning hand touched her own where it gripped the heavy curtain.
"Heera, child, have a care! It is not fitting to be seen looking out upon the men."
Heera obediently let fall the fabric and pulled it tightly closed before turning to the older woman who sat beside her. The woman was gazing at her with a look of disapproval, which was tempered by the glint of warmth and understanding in her eyes. She was well past middle age, yet still hale and strong. Because of her status as an older woman and honored widow, she went with her head covered only by a white shawl -- she had no need to cover her face. She was Heera's attendant, present always to serve her at need, and to see that her honor as the unmarried daughter of the Sardar of the tribe was protected and preserved.
"You speak truly, Bihar," said Heera contritely. "I fear my curiosity caused me to act unwisely. It is hard to be shut up inside when there are things to be seen in the world -- but I do not wish to court dishonor simply for a brief moment of personal satisfaction. But thankfully, no dishonor has come of it -- there is no one near but Kamraan, and as you know, he is a close relative as well as a fellow healer, with whom I may speak as I have need."
"That is well, then," conceded Bihar, leaning forward and lifting the edge of the cloth for a look of her own. "Your honor is safe with your cousin, as you say. But please be more careful with your looking, or we shall both be in trouble!"
Heera smiled fondly at Bihar.
"You are ever watchful on my behalf, and I am content that it should be so! With you to attend and guard me, I have no fear of any dishonor falling upon my father or his name."
"And I know when to look the other way, yes?" replied Bihar with a wink. "When your looking will do little harm, and more good for a young woman eager to know more of the world?"
Bihar took a final look outside, then closed the flap and sat back. The look of humor on her face had been replaced with a worried frown.
"I like it not that we go where you may be seen by strangers and foreigners," she announced fretfully. "I know it is your duty as one of the chief healers among our people, and I know you shall take great care, as you always do -- you are a credit to your father and your people, and can be trusted to do what is right to preserve our honor. But who knows what this war might bring to you, and what may confront you in the healing tents?"
"War brings difficulty and discomfort to us all, Bihar, and even honor must sometimes give way -- or at least we must be willing to stretch it, to allow for the unexpected. In this case, serving the hurt and the wounded is a greater need, I think, than my needs as an unmarried woman."
"I know this," sighed Bihar. "But I am still responsible for your well-being and the honor due your family."
Heera kissed Bihar's weathered cheek tenderly.
"Fear not, my guardian! You shall be with me and I shall be safe; and honor will be answered."
"Indeed!" replied Bihar, managing to look pleased and fierce at the same time. "No man shall approach you without first passing my scrutiny, be he wounded or hale!"
Akhbaas the Wicked sat tall and straight upon his horse, on a knoll overlooking the road. He watched with great satisfaction as his army passed by, observing and noting the sharpened weapons, the fiercely eager faces painted and tattooed, the hoarse chanting of Men hungry for the blood of their enemies. His eyes strayed to the mumak, where it paced slowly and ponderously at the end of the ranks -- huge, powerful, a mountain of strength in the form of a beast. His eyes gleamed with possessive pride to have such power at his command -- a living weapon to strike fear in the heart of any enemy.
A faint breeze brought with it the smell of dust and heat, and the heavy, musky scent of the mumak. The horse shied and danced sideways in fear at the scent of the beast; Akhbaas uttered a sharp oath, and struck impatiently at the animal with his whip. His horse had been giving him no end of trouble since the army had set out on this venture, as the steed sensed the presence of the mumak. He cursed again, applying his whip once more, and the horse settled at last.
Akhbaas looked back along the Road through the swirling dust, in an attempt to see those who followed. Another army was there, though they remained hidden in a dust cloud of their own, kicked up by the hooves of many horses. As soon as it had become known that an army was following, scouts had been dispatched to bring word of who it might be -- friend, or foe. Akhbaas was not surprised that it would be Shahbaaz, who claimed lordship over this land through which the road from Harad ran. Shahbaaz the Falcon was known to him, a fierce warrior at whose side he had fought in the past, to the glory and enrichment of both their tribes. Yet it had been some time since Shahbaaz had gone to war, and it was wondered by some if he had lost his fire and his zeal.
Akhbaas did not like the thought of being followed; he was a man who was feared rather than trusted, and so he himself placed little trust in other men -- even one so honorable as the Falcon. He would rather have him riding where he could see him, than behind him where he would wonder what was being planned. A man had been sent to invite Shahbaaz forward to ride at his side, but the offer had been politely refused, on the excuse that the horses could not endure the presence of the mumak.
Shahbaaz, the Falcon! sneered Akhbaas to himself, irritated afresh at the refusal. A falcon, perhaps -- brave enough, but too cautious now that he grows old and weak! Too fearful of committing himself to alliances that are certain to bring power and fame to his people! Too committed to honor to see the path to wealth and the enlargement of his territory. No doubt he wishes to partake of the spoils in this venture against Gondor, but he will not brave traveling with the mumak! He has grown weak, indeed, and I have nothing to fear from him. Let him follow, then, if he dare not approach me!
Akhbaas snorted loudly, and turning his horse, rode away swiftly towards the front of the line.
It is as well, he mused as he rode. The Falcon rides behind, where he is safe from the mumak, and I will not have to deal with the skittishness of his mounts. His part in the battle will be small if he cannot bear to approach the beast. He may partake of the spoils once we reach the rich cities of Gondor -- if his horsemen can survive the battle!
A sudden thought brought a smile to his lips. If horses trained for battle in the South feared the great beasts of war so common there, what effect would his mumak have upon the horses of the hated Men of Gondor?
It was indeed a thought worth relishing!
Boromir walked among his men as they waited, armed and ready. He spoke words of encouragement to keep the fear of the impending battle at bay. The men listened eagerly, and took comfort in their Captain's bold confidence, for many of them were young and had never before met the Haradrim in battle. They had heard many tales of the fierce cruelty of the Southrons, as they were sometimes called by the men in the ranks, and of the enormous beasts of war which accompanied them to battle. Word had gone round that a mumak approached with the advancing army, and the men of Gondor wondered how they could possibly prevail -- so few, against such enormous odds. Yet they put aside their doubts as Boromir passed by, for he was their High Warden of the White Tower and Captain-General of all the forces of Gondor, and they trusted in his leadership.
Behind Boromir walked his standard bearer, holding high the banner of the House of Stewards. The plain white standard had no device or distinguishing emblem, a symbol of the House of those who ruled in the place of the King who did not return. Yet its sheer whiteness caught the bright sun and drew the eye of the men who looked to it for strength; so too was their eye drawn to the Captain who walked beneath the banner, with his long stride and gleaming armor, his confident laugh and his seeming lack of fear. They would succeed -- against even a mumak of the Southrons -- if their Captain was with them.
Boromir walked among the men, speaking words of encouragement, laughing loud and with assurance, to hide the cold fear that was settling in his heart.
Terms used in this chapter:
Heera = diamond Koh-e-Zulmat = Mountains of Darkness Bihar = spring Kamraan = successful one Akhbaas = wicked Shahbaaz = falcon