The eastern road from Anduin and the northern road from Ithilien met and became one just north of a tumbled grouping of foothills which thrust outwards in a spur from the main mass of the Mountains of Shadow. Skirting the hills which loomed sharply upwards against the eastern sky, the road then widened into a flat thoroughfare, passing under the watchful eye of the Haudh in Gwanur, Mound of the Twins, which guarded the shores of the River Poros. Running over gently sloping terraces to the water's edge and out again on the other side, the road leading southwards passed on until it bent slightly westwards, to be hidden behind the slopes of a low hill.
The river at the Crossings of Poros ran broad and shallow over a bed of stony gravel; it could easily be crossed by men on foot or on horseback, for the water was no more than knee deep, and the current was not treacherously swift. There was no other safe way across the River for a large force of men, so an attacking army had no choice but to cross here -- and the defending army had every advantage, if they could maintain their position and keep the enemy forces from gaining the northern road.
As he watched the sunlight glinting brightly upon the rippling water, Boromir recalled what he knew of other historic battles which had taken place at this very spot. He had memorized the strategies of those great commanders who had successfully defended the Crossings in the past, and he wondered if any of those same strategies would be of use to him now against such overwhelming numbers -- or if he would have to rely upon his own ingenuity and quick thinking to defeat the enemy that gathered beyond the fords. Behind him, the army of Gondor stood silent and orderly, footmen and archers and horsed knights awaiting the imminent battle with patience and well-concealed dread.
Boromir raised his eyes from his contemplation of the water to look upon the vast Southron army which now faced him across the River; the dust that had followed the enemy like an enshrouding cloud had dissipated with the breeze as the multitude approached the grassy banks of the Poros.
The sight of the opposing army was daunting -- wild-looking men in scarlet robes and tattooed faces, chanting and beating upon drums of hide and screaming their hatred of those who stood between them and their plunder. The banners of many different tribes waved and tossed in the breeze as it blew through the valley, ruffling the waters of the ford and catching Boromir's own standard so that it stirred and lifted in the currents of air.
Even as Boromir watched, the milling crowd fell silent and parted to let pass a tall man upon a horse, who rode forward to the very edge of the water. Boromir could not clearly see the man's face at a distance, but the manner in which he sat upon his horse and surveyed the men of Gondor standing before him spoke of nothing but contempt and utter disdain. The man called out something in a sneering voice, and then with a shout of derisive laughter, he turned to face those who followed him. Grasping a tall spear from a nearby soldier, he waved it in the air and gave a hoarse shout, which was answered by a roar from the Southron army. Tossing the spear aside, the tall man rode back through the crowd, shouting as he went.
Boromir watched silently, and wondered what would happen next. The tall man on the horse was obviously in command of this force, and he had given his challenge to the men of Gondor. But as yet, no enemy soldier was making a move to enter the water to begin the crossing.
He sensed movement at his side, and glancing to the left, he saw that Grithnir had approached on his horse; he did not speak, but stood ready to relay the orders of his Captain, as soon as Boromir was ready.
The shouting of the enemy was now answered by loud drumming and the sound of horns blowing, and a strange trumpeting sound which Boromir instantly recognized as the call of a mūmak. He saw it then, heaving into view from behind the hill where it had been hidden from sight. As it advanced, the Haradrim drew back to allow it passage to the front of the line.
With a flash of insight, Boromir realized what the enemy commander's strategy would be -- he intended to send the mūmak to the forefront of the ranks, wreaking havoc among the forces of Gondor and leaving the field wide open for the enemy to cross at will while Boromir's men were engaged in defending against the great creature. Boromir's face set grimly as he turned to Grithnir.
"Take command of the knights and retreat behind the ranks; take up your position well back from the front of the line. If the enemy comes nigh, fight without hesitation, but do your best to keep your distance from the mūmak -- the horses will not be able to endure it. Prepare the knights for the dirnaith -- that battle formation will serve well if the mūmak can be dealt with quickly. I shall lead the men in the thangail formation; if the Southrons attack while we are still engaging the mūmak, the knights will have to enter the fray regardless. Send a rider to Faramir and tell him we need more archers below here on the flat -- he must send me his best men, those with the keenest eye and the strongest nerve."
"Will you keep to your horse, my lord, or do you wish to fight on foot?"
"I will be better able to command if I am on horseback, in spite of the danger from the mūmak," replied Boromir.
Grithnir nodded sharply, and wheeling his horse around, rode away to carry out his Captain's orders, as Boromir turned to face the men who remained.
"Form ranks to execute the thangail!" he shouted. "Spears and pikemen to the front, longswords behind. Bowmen well behind the shield wall -- shoot high and concentrate your fire on the mūmak -- aiming for the eyes, and for the men who ride atop the beast. The enemy will attempt to advance while we are occupied with that fight; if we are outflanked, close the thangail into a ring around the mūmak, and let our knights deal with the others."
He surveyed the lines of his men and saw in their faces that they knew what to do -- and he was satisfied. Grasping the helm that hung at his side upon the saddle, he raised it and placed it firmly upon his head. The forces of Gondor watching him gave a great shout, for this was the signal that battle was about to be enjoined, and Boromir, Captain of Gondor, would be at the forefront of that battle.
Akhbaas laughed as he gave the signal for the mūmak to lead the attack. He had been angry at first when he saw that the men of Gondor were indeed waiting for him, and barring his path to wealth and fame. But it was of no consequence, for their numbers were small compared to his own, and the beast would see to it that those numbers were reduced even further. He laughed again, gloatingly, his good humor restored at the thought of such an easy victory.
He looked about him, seeking the best vantage point from which to observe the slaughter -- and suddenly realized that the Falcon and his horsemen were nowhere to be seen. He scowled angrily, more because Shahbaaz was choosing to follow his own plan of attack than because Akhbaas missed having him present with his own troops. This army he had gathered from among many different tribes was loyal to him, and would obey him faithfully -- as long as they were well paid with plunder. But Shahbaaz was of another sort; he had fought with Akhbaas in the past, but only against a common enemy, and not for the sake of wealth or plunder. Yet, perhaps he had changed in his old age and was willing to bend his neck and his honor for a chance at easily gotten riches...
The Falcon is no fool, thought Akhbaas, but he grows weak, and when weakness comes, so too comes fear for one's own safety. Perhaps he thinks to spare his horsemen the worst of the battle. Let him, then! Better to have him away from me so that his horses do not interfere with the beast's attack. Let him hide somewhere safe, waiting to attack when the need is greatest -- or when the worst part of the fight is over! I need him not! If he comes too late to be of any use to me, he shall suffer the consequences of interfering with me uninvited!
Behind him, the trumpeting call of the charging mūmak split the air, and the ground beneath him shook as the creature began to run. Akhbaas turned in his saddle in time to see the huge creature splashing into the shallow waters of the crossing, sending up waves of water on either side. Akhbaas laughed at the sight and spurred his horse up the slope of a low hill that rose up beside the road. He did not want to miss seeing from on high the utter defeat of his enemy.
Heera was restless. This was the hardest time for her, when all was made ready in the tents of healing, and there was nothing to do but to wait for the wounded to be brought to them. She had been in such situations many times before, but it never seemed to get easier. She found herself straining at every sound, expecting at any moment to hear the call of horns and the cries of men and the clash of weapons upon armor that would signal the beginning of the slaughter.
Not for the first time did she wish she could accompany her father as one of the healers who aided the wounded upon the very field of battle, instead of being one who waited in the tents for the hurt to be brought to her. But though she knew herself to be eminently capable of such a task, she also knew it was not fitting for her -- not as a woman, nor as the daughter of the Sardar. At least she was allowed to be here in the tents, accompanying the healers when they went into battle -- that was more than most of the women were allowed. Their task was to wait at home until their men returned -- or did not return. Heera was indeed thankful that her father was broad-minded and lenient enough to allow her this service to the men in his company; her skill in healing was very great, and so allowances were made for her to enter into a world that was normally only open to men.
The breeze quickened and brought with it the sound of a roaring shout, and the call of horns, and the trumpeting of the mūmak, faint yet clear.
"Jahan-afireen keep us!" she sighed sorrowfully.
Bihar was immediately at her side.
"What is it, my child?" she asked worriedly; she stopped still as the sound of the battle reached her own ears.
"It has begun," Heera replied, bowing her head. "It has begun."
Terms used in this chapter:
Dirnaith = "man spearhead" -- a a battle formation of the Dśnedain, wedge-shaped and launched over a short distance against an enemy amassing but not yet arrayed. Thangail = "shield fence" -- a battle formation of the Dśnedain, a shield wall of two serried ranks that could be bent back at either end if outflanked until at need it became a closed ring. Sardar = Chieftain Jahan-afireen = Creator of the world