The midmorning sun shone brightly down upon the army that approached the River Poros, but its rays were dimmed by the cloud of dust that enveloped the advancing Haradrim. The men who walked in the midst of that cloud were little affected by the dust which choked the air, for their faces were hidden behind protective folds of cloth, and they welcomed the obscurity provided by the haze. It meant their numbers were hidden from the enemy, should anyone be watching their approach.
The man who rode at the head of the throng went in no fear of being observed, however. Akhbaas remained supremely confident that his coming was yet a well-guarded secret -- all the reports he had received concerning the land on the other side of the Crossing assured him that Gondor held the area loosely and could not put up sufficient resistance to stop him, nor did they have enough men posted there to even keep watch upon their own borders. He knew he had not sufficient strength to attack the City of White Stone -- as yet! But he hoped to establish himself in the unprotected lands east of the Great River, where Sauron held sway. Settlements long deserted would be his -- as well as any goods left behind -- and he would establish a foothold upon the very threshold of his enemy, whence he could plunder the people of Gondor at will. He had heard there were many smaller towns and villages in the rich lands south of the Great City; he had only to make his way there, across the Great River. How difficult could that be, with an enemy lacking in vigilance? With a thousand fierce men and a mūmak behind him, he might be in and out with his plunder before the weak ones could gather to stop him! And if the Dark Lord saw that his new ally was so strong and bold, might he not add to that reward? Perhaps the Dark Lord would give him command of even greater armies in the coming days...
Akhbaas was soon lost in a pleasant dream of passing unchallenged into the land of his enemy; a dream of easy conquest, glorious victory over unsuspecting towns and cities, and the crushing defeat of the weak pale Men of Gondor. But his dreaming did not last long; suddenly, his thoughts were interrupted by a voice at his side.
"My lord, a scout awaits with a report."
Akhbaas scowled at the unexpected interruption that had spoiled his daydream, and reined in his horse impatiently.
"Tell him to come, then, and quickly!'
The scout came forward hesitantly, shaking with fear and bowing nervously. Akhbaas frowned at the cringing man.
"What is it, dog?" he cursed. "Speak! Do not fear me, unless you bring a bad report."
"My lord," stammered the scout. "I... My report is not good, I fear. Our coming is known to the enemy. I... I saw one of their scouts, and followed him. They have an army, lord, amassed at the Crossings. They await us; we will not be able to cross unchallenged."
Akhbaas gave a strangled cry of fury and leapt from his horse. He grasped the messenger by the throat and drew him up close until the messenger's face was pressed close to his own.
"What is this you say?" he growled through clenched teeth, tightening his grip on the man's throat with each angry question. "How can this be? Was I not told that their land is deserted and nearly under the control of the great Lord of the Dark Land? How can they know of our coming? Do we have a spy in our midst? Have I been betrayed?!"
"I... I know not, lord!" gasped the scout, clawing at the hand that grasped his throat.
"How many, and how are they armed?" demanded Akhbaas.
The scout's breathing was becoming more labored, and speech was a struggle, but he strove desperately to answer as best he could.
"We... outnumber them, lord! But they... they are well-armed... spears... long... longbows... knights armored..."
Akhbaas shrieked in wordless fury and shook the scout violently until his rage was spent. When at last he tossed the man aside, the scout fell limply to the ground and lay still.
"They shall not stop us," growled Akhbaas, stepping over the fallen man to mount his horse. "We shall crush them!"
Spurring the animal to a gallop, he rode on.
The army followed, sparing no glance for the messenger who lay by the side of the road. It was a common enough sight to those who traveled with Akhbaas the Wicked. No healers attended his company; if men were injured, they fought on, until they could fight no more. When they could not longer fight, they were left behind to die. That was the way of things. Akhbaas would make it worth their while, if they lived.
The company of riders halted, and waited while one went forward to see if any aid could be given to the man they had found lying by the side of the road. Bending over the prone figure, the rider touched him carefully, turning his head slowly to one side to observe his face and the nature of his wounds. After a moment, he straightened and shook his head.
"He is dead, my lord. His neck is broken."
Shahbaaz nodded in acknowledgement of the report, but did not speak. He looked down upon the dead man, with a look of stern pity upon his face.
"Akhbaas spends his men before the battle even begins," he said severely, his voice low and strained. Behind him, the riders who were close enough to hear his words murmured and muttered softly amongst themselves.
"This man was a scout, I see, by the badge at his breast," Shahbaaz observed. "It is a fearsome thing, indeed, to bring ill news to a man who wishes to hear only good. Akhbaas is a strong leader who rewards well those who serve with him. But he is also a dangerous ally. Alas! for those who cross him! They are left behind, even as this man was left, dead and forgotten. We must go carefully ourselves, my brothers, and walk with our eyes open."
Shahbaaz squinted as he peered through the haze of dust kicked up by the army ahead of him and by his own horsemen. His men were silent as they waited for him to speak.
Stirring in his saddle, Shahbaaz straightened, gesturing sharply to the man who still knelt at the side of the fallen scout.
"Leave him, now," he said shortly. "There is naught we can do for him, and our destiny calls us elsewhere."
He wheeled his horse around to address the company of riders.
"Come, my brothers!" Shahbaaz called out in a loud voice. "Let us follow this road no further; we go now by the path appointed to us, while our passage to the River may still be hidden by the dust of Akhbaas and his army. Let them take the plain road -- our way shall be another way."
He pulled sharply on the reins and urged his horse around and forward once more; with a wave of his arm, he called his men to follow him.
"To the River!" he cried. "Ride now! Ride like the wind, to battle and glory and vengeance!"
The passage through the hills had been made without incident, and the tents for the care of the wounded had been set and made ready. The spot was well chosen -- nigh to a bend in the River which hid the camp from the battlefield two leagues distant, where the land was firm, yet well-watered.
Guards were assigned to patrol the perimeter of the camp, while others accompanied those carrying water from the River, to be stored in the tents to be at hand when needed.
Heera and Bihar were among them. Though it was normally considered not fitting for the women to mix with men in this way, it was allowed in this case, for all hands were needed for the work. They held themselves apart as much as possible, keeping well-wrapped and veiled, and speaking only to Kamraan, Heera's kinsman, or to the young boy who attended to their needs.
Heera did not mind the heavy work. Though it was awkward hauling water up out of the river while swathed in a long tunic and the flowing shawl which obscured her face, it was pleasant to be out in the open instead of shut up inside a tent, and to be busy about a task that kept her from thinking too far ahead. She kept her eyes averted, not only because she was among a group of men of whom only a few were her kinsmen, but also because she was determined not to keep glancing eastward to the distant cloud of dust that hovered in the air over the Payabe-e-Poros, the fords of the River where the road crossed out of her own land and into that of Gondor. That was where the battle would take place, and she did not want to think upon that battle, which was now so imminent.
Yet, Heera could not help but look at times, when her thoughts strayed to her father and his riders; by now they would already have crossed the River to the place where they intended to remain hidden until they were needed. Though she had not seen him go, she knew well his plan, and knew roughly where to look for any sign of his presence. But the only indication of their passing upstream had been a brief muddying of the water flowing past the healers' camp, when the horses had entered the River. The water had soon cleared, and there was no further sign.
"Come, child," said Bihar at last, drawing Heera away from the water's edge. "We have done enough here, and the sun is now high in the sky. We should go inside."
"Yes, of course," agreed Heera, but she hung back for one last glance across the water towards Gondor.
"What are they like, do you think?" she said in a soft voice. Bihar was forced to lean forward to catch her words.
"What do you mean?" Bihar asked, puzzled.
"The men of Gondor," answered Heera. "I have heard tales of them for as long as I can remember; I wonder if they are as tall and as proud and as pale as they say?"
She looked down at her own olive-toned hand; her people were light-skinned compared to the Men of Harad, and those from the distant jungles of Far Harad were even darker than they.
"Not that it matters," said Heera with a smile, in answer to her own question. "I am simply curious. Yet it seems a pity..."
"A pity that they are pale and not dark?" queried Bihar, somewhat confused.
"Nay!" laughed Heera, taking care to keep her laughter low and quiet, so she would not call attention to herself in an unseemly fashion. "I only meant that it seems a pity I will not likely have an opportunity to judge what manner of men they might be; my first and only sight of them may well be as dead men upon the battlefield."
The thought was sobering.
"Come," said Bihar gently. "Do not think upon it. We must wait now, as women have always waited on the edge of battle -- be they dark or light. We do what we can for our men who fight, and the rest is in the hands of Jahan-afireen, the Maker."
"Indeed!" sighed Heera, as she allowed Bihar to usher her into their tent.
"Your report, Henderch?"
Boromir knew what the scout would tell him, for the evidence was clear before his eyes; the coming of the enemy was imminent -- the dust hung like a dark curtain on the horizon, and he could hear faintly upon the breeze the sound of distant chanting.
"They are come, my lord Boromir," affirmed Henderch.
Boromir acknowledged the news with a nod and turned to Faramir.
"My brother," he said, laying a hand on Faramir's shoulder. "Array the longbowmen along the ridge overlooking the Crossing; take out as many of the enemy as you can as they cross the river. Once the army has crossed, I leave it to you to reorder the bowmen and your Rangers as necessary -- I trust you to send them in where they are most needed. Keep a watch on the mūmak; it may well fall to you and your archers to deal with the creature."
He then turned to the company commanders who waited to hear his final instructions.
"Go swiftly, my men, and join your companies. We cannot tell yet how the attack may come; but we must do what we can to draw them to this side of the water. Then we shall see how they form themselves. Our best hope lies in striking after they have crossed at the Ford but before they have had opportunity to amass their attack. We shall make them pay for setting foot upon Gondor's soil!"
As the men strode away down the hill to join their companies, Boromir called for his horse. Mounting, he walked his steed to the edge of the ridge, where all could see him. Lifting the Horn of Gondor to his lips, he blew a great blast upon the horn which rang out across the valley and echoed among the hills along the River.
"Men of Gondor!" he cried, in a clear strong voice. "Hear me, my brothers! Our enemy approaches. They come against us, thinking us weak and powerless to stop them. But shall we allow this? Shall we allow this enemy to walk at will in our lands?"
"No!!" came the answer, a great roar of affirmation.
"They think us easy prey!" shouted Boromir. "But they shall learn otherwise, to their sorrow -- we are not weak, nor are we powerless! The arm and hand of Gondor remain strong and powerful -- let us smite this enemy a blow that will be felt even in Mordor!"
The troops roared again and beat upon their shields with their weapons.
"Do not fear them, my brothers! Be bold! Be strong! Fight with confidence, for I shall lead you with confidence!"
Boromir paused and looked out over the valley at his men who stood ready for battle. There was fear upon many a face, but determination was there also, the firm resolve to do what was necessary to keep Gondor safe. They were ready.
"Let them come!" he cried, raising his sword high in the air. "Gondor awaits! Let the enemy come!"