Boromir lifted a hand to shade his eyes against the midday sun and gazed out across marshy grasslands to the White Mountains looming up dark against the southern sky. Close enough to touch, they seemed, though Boromir knew many leagues yet lay between him and the road that hugged the forested slopes of the Ered Nimrais.
They had managed little more than five leagues in the two days since they had left the graveside of their lost companions. The fens were difficult to traverse on foot, even for a man who was not wounded and weary, and Boromir was both. He tired easily, requiring frequent stops for rest, and his wounds troubled him, for the ground was uneven and he stumbled often.
Yet their progress forward was steady, if slow, and though Boromir's heart cried out within him that delay could mean failure and death for those he loved, he knew they could go no faster. He was comforted to have Grithnir and Arthad at his side to steady him when he stumbled, and Henderch, who was skilled at guiding them along the firmest and swiftest path through the fen.
"In spite of the meandering our path has taken us as we traversed the marshes, we are not astray," said Henderch at Boromir's shoulder. "The beacon-hill of Nardol is there before us as our guide; to reach the West Road at that point we must turn slightly to the east from here. Another league will see us to the edge of the marshland and the crossing of the last river tributary into the plain of Anórien -- twenty leagues beyond that lies the Road. We can reach the river by evening; if we make camp there for the night, we can make the crossing in daylight. Our journey will be swifter after that, for the grassland will grow more dry and firm as we draw nigh the mountains. "
Boromir looked where Henderch pointed, and could discern a ribbon of bright water in the distance which flowed across their path. Grithnir, standing beside him, eyed the distance doubtfully.
"Another league?" he muttered, glancing sideways at Boromir.
"Only a league!" he answered. "I can manage that much more today, Grithnir. Let us put these marshlands behind us, and then I shall rest, I promise you!"
Hirgon's booted feet rang loudly on the marbled floor of the Great Hall, but he took no pains to quiet his steps. He strode forward confidently, knowing he was expected and even welcomed. It was his duty to the Lord Denethor not to waste time with that which was secondary to the task at hand, that task being haste to report, and haste to depart upon whatever errand the Steward might require of him.
"Welcome, Hirgon, errand-rider of Gondor," said Denethor as he approached. "I thank you for coming with all speed."
Hirgon bowed low before the Steward, but hesitated as he caught sight of what lay upon Denethor's lap.
"I see," he said gravely, nodding slowly. "So it has come to this -- the Red Arrow, token of desperate war! Then that battle which we have long feared has come upon us at last?"
"It comes swiftly now," answered Denethor, "but it is not yet here. Little good will it do us, however, to call for aid when the enemy is already at the door. The days grow short, but we have a little time yet to draw our allies to our side before it be too late."
Rising, Denethor stepped forward and handed the arrow to Hirgon. It was black-feathered and barbed with steel, and the tip was painted red -- ordinary enough in appearance, but the message it represented was a summons of the most desperate kind.
"Much of what I will tell you now is known to you, Hirgon," continued Denethor, "for you have taken a great part in many of my preparations by carrying my messages, and you are well aware of all the news and rumor of war leading up to this summons. You were one of the errand-riders sent out with messages to the lords of Gondor after the southern beacons were lit, alerting those in the southern fiefs to prepare for imminent war; you were one who returned to me with assurances from those lords that they would be within these walls by the date set."
As he spoke, Denethor paced slowly back and forth in front of Hirgon, his head lowered as if in deep thought. Now he straightened and glanced keenly at the errand-rider, touching the fletching on the arrow with a long finger.
"I do not dispatch the Red Arrow lightly!" Denethor said solemnly. "But now more than ever does Gondor rely upon our ancient bond and alliance with Rohan. For it seems we cannot expect full aid from the South, which is threatened now from another direction. Long have I feared this, and now it comes to pass! This very evening I have received news of a fleet from Umbar which approaches."
"This is dire news!" Hirgon cried. "Such a force will certainly draw off much needed support from the cities of the South; the men they might have sent to our succor must now defend the coastlands and their own cities from attack. Our numbers will be divided, now when we are most in need of great strength!"
"Indeed!" replied Denethor. "The Dark Lord has many under his sway, while our allies are few and distant. But such as we have, we will use. Listen carefully now, and hear the message that shall accompany this token of war. This is what you must say to Théoden:
"I do not issue any command, yet I beg him to remember old friendship and oaths long spoken. Tell him that I judge the time has come that the strong arms of the Rohirrim should be within my walls, for his own good. The kings of the East ride to the service of Mordor, and in the North there is skirmish and rumor of war. The Haradrim move in the South, and fear has fallen on all our coastlands; little aid will come to us now from those who are nigh. Tell Théoden this, and tell him to make haste -- for it is here, in front of these walls, that the doom of our time will be decided. I ask for all his strength and speed, lest Gondor fall at last." **
"I hear you, my lord," answered Hirgon with a bow. "I shall be your emissary before Théoden, and he will learn of our great need."
Denethor gave a short, sharp nod of satisfaction.
"Go, then. Take one or two companions with you, so that the errand might not fail should one of you come to harm; and seek out Théoden in Rohan with all speed. Battles have been fought upon his own borders, and it may be that he will not be found in Edoras."
"I will find him, lord, wherever he might be. Fear not! And the northern beacons, my lord? Shall I take word to the first post as I go that the beacons be lit and the few who remain in Anórien warned?"
"Nay, word has already been sent, but if you are swift, you shall outride the beacon fires."
Without another word, Hirgon bowed and strode from the Hall.
Boromir and his men made their camp atop a rise overlooking the last branch of the Entwash which lay between them and the grasslands of Anórien; they would cross on the morrow at the narrowest fording place. The river here was wider than the other branches of water meandering through the reed-choked marshes of the fen, but slow-moving and shallow enough that it would not be difficult to cross, even for a wounded man.
Boromir leaned back against an outcropping of stone and gazed up at the sky to watch the moon rise. The stars shown out clearly, with only the light of the nearly full moon to contest their brilliance. At Boromir's direction, no fire had been made in the camp, lest they be revealed to a watchful enemy who might be lurking in the wide flat lands that surrounded them.
Twelve days it had been since the breaking of the Fellowship, twelve days since he had last seen Frodo. Where was he now, Boromir wondered, in the vast empty lands beyond the wide water of the Anduin? Had he been discovered and the Ring taken? Was Sauron even now moving against Gondor?
Grimacing at his own gloomy thoughts, Boromir took a deep breath of night air to steady himself. He immediately felt better. This was Gondor, his own country, and there was a scent to it that was unique -- the air off the river, the new flowers in the grass still warm from the day's sunlight, the wind off the distant mountains which brought a faint smell of pine and snow on the heights. It was as refreshing as cold water to a thirsty man, and as calming as a stern lecture from a confident captain assured of victory. He had missed this special fragrance of Gondor, not even realizing it existed until he had nearly lost it.
Do not lose hope so easily! he chided himself. Have you not as yet learned that lesson? Loss of hope will lead only to darkness and despair, and you have had enough of that for a lifetime! Have a little faith in the resourcefulness of halflings -- you now know their strength! And do not fear the coming battle before it is fought. That is what led you to fall in the first place, to stretch out your hand to the Ring, thinking It would make you stronger even than the Dark Lord! Yes, Sauron is strong, very strong, even without the Ring, and he will make his move soon -- but he will not have it all his own way. Not with Gondor to stem the tide of battle. And I am here now. Though my arm is weak and my strength half what it might be, I will stand with my people and fight with them. I shall not come too late -- I shall not!
Even as he made the firm vow to himself, and felt a thrill as his heart was strengthened by it, his eye caught a flash of light in the sky that was neither the moon nor starlight.
"What is that light so high on the horizon?" wondered Arthad in a worried voice. "It is red, like fire on the mountain, and comes from the southeast, from the direction of Minas Tirith."
"The moon is bright, but not yet high enough to cast light upon the snows on the heights, or we might be able to tell better what manner of light it is," replied Henderch thoughtfully.
"Fire on the mountain," murmured Boromir slowly, and his breath caught in his throat. "Wait now and see..."
They waited and watched as the light grew and steadied, a tiny blaze of fire in the darkness. Then, suddenly, a second light flared and blossomed, to join the first; yet this one seemed larger, as if it came closer.
"It is the beacons," cried Boromir, struggling to rise. "The signal beacons are lit, calling Gondor to war!"
Beside him Grithnir gasped and Arthad leapt to his feet.
"The beacons lit!" Henderch exclaimed. "Then we are too late! The war has begun and we come too late!"
"No!" Boromir stretched out a cautioning hand to each of his men and shook his head firmly, yet without taking his eyes from the blazing signal fires.
"No, not late, not yet. My father is forward-seeing and has his finger upon every source of news. He would not light the beacons as a last resort, with war already upon him. Nay, he sends word now while there is time to all who remain outside, to get behind the walls of the City while they may. He sends for Rohan now while time yet remains for the muster of horses and men. But that time is short nonetheless."
Boromir continued to watch the flames as they leapt from hilltop to hilltop, beacon-tower answering beacon-tower westwards towards the border of Rohan.
"Sauron makes his move," Boromir said slowly and steadily, "but Denethor is aware of him, and has made his own move to counter that of Mordor. Rohan will not forsake us! And I am here now; late, but not too late! I will come to Minas Tirith soon, and then we shall see. Though my arm is weak and my strength half what it should be, I will stand with my people and fight with them."
Boromir's face in the moonlight was set with a look of such resolution that his men fell silent in awe of him.
"I shall not come too late," vowed Boromir. "I shall not!"
** Author's note: Denethor's message for Rohan is taken (with only a few changes) from the words spoke by Hirgon to Théoden in "The Muster of Rohan" (ROTK).