Eadric frowned as he peered moodily into the grey twilight, silently cursing the darkness that was making his scouting more difficult than it ought to have been. It was just past midday, yet the light was such that it seemed to be evening, that dim hour of half-darkness before true night falls. The air felt thick somehow, though not as with fog or mist, and even sound seemed deadened in the still greyness. Nevertheless, Eadric could see and hear well enough and he knew he would miss nothing of import, in spite of the darkness. A clear and complete report would be made to his lord Éomer of what passed here in the land of Gondor, for an accurate and timely report was vital. The Sons of Eorl rode to Mundberg at speed, and could ill afford delay caused by unexpected enemy entanglement along the way.
Above and behind him loomed a high green hill, treeless upon its crown, where stood one of the beacons of Gondor: the beacon of Erelas. The fires that had burned there less than two days ago were now spent. Eadric wondered if those who attended the beacon worked to replace the wood in expectation of an answering signal from Rohan; no doubt it was their duty to do so, whether an answer came or no. Erelas was one of the smaller beacons, and little used except at the most urgent need, but it was kept in readiness nonetheless. In this case, no fire signaling the coming of Rohan to Gondor's aid would be laid, for that coming must be kept secret from the One who had his Eye upon the western Road, and from the spies who might be on alert for any sign of movement upon it.
At least this twilight will hide our riding, thought Eadric, though it takes the heart out of the stoutest of Men, and makes it difficult to do my duty to my lord Éomer. Unless the eyes of the servants of the Dark Lord are keener than mine, they will have as much difficulty as I in this murk. Let us use it to our advantage, then.
He turned in his saddle to the men who waited expectantly beside him.
"Thrydwulf and Hunlaf, you shall continue east upon the road, but go no farther than halfway to the next beacon-hill; circle round in a wide sweep south into the grasslands, then return to the road. Brynhere and Guthwald have already begun their sweep south of the beacon-hill of Minrimmon, which we passed yestereve; their circling should join yours at some point before you turn back to the road. I shall turn south here and search beyond the road, and hope to meet you on the far side of your sweep.
"Bring report of any sign of movement, be it Orc or troop or wandering stranger. Be alert, watchful, and keep your weapons close to hand. But do not strike unless you are attacked or know without a doubt that you have met an enemy -- it may be that not all the inhabitants of this area of Gondor have fled to safety in Mundberg, and they must not come to harm.
"Go now, and fare well!"
Thrydwulf and Hunlaf nodded sharply, and with a flick of their reins, they were gone. Eadric's eyes followed them until they were but dim shadows moving swiftly through the twilight. Then, giving a sharp whistle to his steed, he galloped away southwards.
"Is this information accurate, Hathol?"
"Yes, Captain Beregar. The scout who brought word is one of Lord Faramir's rangers, left in Ithilien to keep watch on Sauron's movements. An army of Orcs and Easterling Men from Mordor approaches Cair Andros, some 6,000 strong and heavily armed."
"How long before they reach us?"
"We have until evening, perhaps. They come swiftly, in spite of their numbers."
"So it begins here!" replied Beregar grimly. "Very well, then. We are ready -- as ready as we can be with what few men we have posted here! It may be enough... The fortifications are strong and will hold for some time -- though not forever, against such a force! Still, we must hold them as best we can, for if the isle is taken, the enemy will have passage across the River, and Minas Tirith will be threatened from the North as well as the East, and the Great Western Road will be blocked. That is no doubt their intention: to prevent Rohan's aid from reaching the City in our time of need. But they shall not pass without a fight."
He pushed aside his midday meal, and rising from the table, strode to the door of his chamber, beckoning to Hathol to follow him.
"Go quickly and sound the general alarm, then return to your post. I shall gather the other captains and hold council. Is this ranger available for further questioning?"
"Yes, Captain, he awaits you in the council chambers."
"That is well. I shall go there at once to speak with him. Go now, Hathol, our time is short."
"What is this place we now approach?" asked Legolas thoughtfully, gazing ahead through the gloom to the river that flowed swift and wide through the meadows below. "I see the river, and a fording place, and the surrounding town; there are no folk stirring, though it is now midday."
"No doubt they fear this darkness from Mordor -- if they have not already heard of the coming of the Dead and fled far away," muttered Gimli, casting an apprehensive glance back over his shoulder, as if to make certain the Oathbreakers still followed at a distance.
"This is Ethring," replied Aragorn. "Ethring upon the River Ringló. It is one of the few places where travellers can ford the cold waters of Ringló that flow from the snowfields in the mountains to the Sea."
"Ringló!" exclaimed Legolas, turning his head to follow the river's course towards the southwest, a bright light in his eyes. "That river flows to Edhellond, the Elf-haven upon the Bay of Belfalas, whence the Elves once sailed from Middle-earth. There it was that Amroth in his grey ship awaited Nimrodel -- but in vain, for she came not."
Legolas sighed deeply, recalling that sad tale. He began to chant in a soft voice:
"The elven-ship in haven grey Beneath the mountain-lee Awaited her for many a day Beside the roaring sea.**
"One day, perhaps, I shall visit that place, and look upon the Sea for myself. Will there be a ship waiting there still, I wonder?"
"Not for you, my friend!" growled Gimli shortly. "And not today! Let us be on our way. The Dead grow impatient, and I do not wish them overtaking us yet again."
"Fear not!" Aragorn said with a faint smile. "I have forbidden them, and they will not attempt to pass us by again. They follow me now, and they will not disobey. Let us go on until the river is behind us; then we will stop to take some food."
Boromir and his men stopped only briefly throughout the day, to rest and take nourishment; then he was pressing them forward once again. At times, he would stop, and stare scowling into the murk, as though to pierce the obscurity with his stare alone, to see what passed ahead of him. Then he would gesture them onward.
As the day progressed, the shadow deepened, the dark cloud from Mordor streaming ever westwards, covering the sky like a door closing to shut out the light. Beneath that door the air was heavy and close, and Boromir and his men were oppressed by it.
"Almost I would fear that we had lost our way," murmured Grithnir, "did I not know without doubt that Henderch leads truly, even in darkness."
"Aye, we do progress!" assured Henderch. "I have not lost the way, and in spite of how it may seem, we make good time. Distance is hard to judge in this poor light, but I would say we are but three or four days from the Road."
Grithnir acknowledged the confirmation with a grateful nod.
"It is this wretched darkness which makes us anxious!" cried Arthad. "It presses against us, confusing and stifling the will, and whispers of despair..."
"Fear not!" exclaimed Boromir firmly, so firmly that his men were immediately soothed and encouraged. "I vowed to be done with despair, and I shall keep that vow, no matter what storm of darkness or irritation Sauron brings to plague me!"
He glared fiercely at the eastern sky, whence the dark clouds of war continued to billow, then turned to face the mountains to the south, all but invisible now in the increasing twilight.
"Alas!" he sighed. "I have need of Elven sight, here. I can no longer see clearly the beacon mount of Nardol that has served as our guide these past days. It is barely the time of sunset, yet night has seemingly fallen. Would that the fire still burned upon the mountain to guide our way! Though perhaps even that light would be quenched in this gloom!"
The red blaze of beacon-fire still burned brightly in Boromir's dreams and memory, for it had been but two nights since they had sighted the signal fires racing towards Rohan. When Osgiliath had been attacked the summer before, the beacons of Amon Dîn and Eilenach had been set ablaze, to warn the farmers and herdsmen of Anorién of their possible danger -- but never before in his time had there been such a need, when one after another, all of the northern beacons been lit.
As if in answer to his thought, a blaze of light struck the side of Boromir's face, and he turned to see what it could be.
Far away in the West, the sun had escaped the shadows as it sank towards the rim of the world, and a brief glow of red light shone out across the lands in defiance of Mordor. Boromir, his eyes used to the dimness that had closed them in all that day, was momentarily dazzled.
But in that brief instant, as his eyes adjusted to the changing light, Boromir saw silhouetted against the glow several Men on tall horses, riding swiftly towards them from out of the West.
**Author's note: This stanza is taken from the song Legolas sings of Nimrodel in "Lothlorién" (FOTR).