Boromir did not like waiting. He looked westwards towards the setting sun, where the long shadows of scattered woodlands stretched out towards them across the undulating plains of Southern Ithilien. They were high enough on the mountain slope that Boromir thought he could see off in the distance the glint of the Anduin as it curved away towards Pelargir and the Great Bay.
This was a pleasant enough place in which to do it, but the agreeableness of the spot did little to ease the frustration of the enforced delay. It was natural for Boromir to feel some impatience, for he was eager to proceed with his mission -- but even more than that, he was worried about the reason for the delay. The scouts were late in returning, and that was cause for concern.
Boromir stood concealed at the top of a wooded ridge overlooking the Southward Road, as it wound its way past the outlying hills of Emyn Arnen into Southern Ithilien and beyond. His men waited with him, hidden here and there among the trees. They would not move on until they had received the signal that all was clear on the Road.
This wooded area was the last place of concealment for some miles; once they descended the ridge, they would be exposed, for the terrain on either side of the Road was open and barren of cover, and anyone moving through the area could easily be spotted by a watchful enemy. If they could cross the Road safely and secretly, they could once again find some refuge in the woodlands that ascended the foothills of the Ephel Dúath, east of the road.
Ithilien on the very borders of Mordor was a land claimed by the Enemy, but it was not yet overrun. Although Orcs and other enemies roamed the forests between mountain and River, and the presence of evil and danger was felt throughout the land, passage was still possible if one went with great care. And such care was needed; Boromir's company was small -- twenty men only -- and they could not afford a skirmish with a larger enemy troop.
Boromir wondered if twenty men would be sufficient for the mission at hand. Their task seemed straightforward enough: find the hidden fastness of Fennas Haradren, one of the bases established years before by the long-sighted Steward Túrin II. Fennas Haradren served as an outpost for forayers who harried the enemy in Ithilien and kept a foothold for Gondor in this occupied land. It had fallen into disuse over the years, because of its location on the very borders of Mordor and its distance from Minas Tirith; but several years before, the Lord Denethor had sent a small contingent of Rangers to reoccupy the outpost at Fennas Haradren. The group had been too small to do much more than provide information on the movement of Orcs and Haradrim in the area, but that information had often proved valuable.
But now there was the possibility of trouble. Faramir, as captain of the Rangers of Ithilien at Henneth Annûn, had dealt often with the Rangers at Fennas Haradren and received regular reports from them. He had sent word, however, that an unusual amount of time had passed since there had last been any report or contact from the outpost, and he feared the worst. Rather than pull any men away from their assignment in Northern Ithilien, Denethor had chosen to send Boromir and a company of twenty men to investigate.
Boromir saw the wisdom in taking such a small group, for they could move with ease and remain unobserved, in a land patrolled by Orcs and other enemies. But he was concerned about the possibility of meeting a large troop of the enemy on the way, and about what they might find when they arrived at the outpost; it could go ill for his small company if they came under attack. It was Boromir's task as captain to see that this did not happen, if he could prevent it.
So they waited for news, and Boromir worried.
He heard a light step behind him. Turning quickly, he saw a man approaching; it was Grithnir, his lieutenant.
"Is there any news, Grithnir?"
"No, my Captain. The scouts have not yet returned."
"Very well," Boromir replied heavily.
"Should we proceed without their report? The Road is clear as far as we can see from here on the ridge. The scouts will be able to pick up our trail and follow after, if they come late."
"I hesitate to risk the crossing without their report," replied Boromir, after a moment of thought. "It is true, the Road seems clear from this vantage point, but it will not do to be caught suddenly in the open. The scouting party may be delayed because of an enemy we cannot see from here, and that means we would be putting ourselves in danger by crossing now. The day is yet young; we can wait a while longer."
Grithnir nodded, and went to inform the other men of their captain's decision.
Boromir waited until Grithnir was out of earshot before he heaved a long sigh -- it helped a little to curb his impatience. He was irritated at the delay, but he could not show it; it was pointless to be angry. But why were they taking so long? Fear that the scouts had run into trouble assailed him. Always it was this way! He sent out his scouts, and then waited in fear and impatience until they returned. Such was the duty of a captain: to order his men into danger, and then to bear with reasonably good grace the waiting time that followed.
To ease the wait, Boromir turned back to his lookout.
Northward he cast his eye, where the ridge sloped down into a shallow valley until it rose again in another ridge like the one upon which he stood. Off in the distance he could see the darker green of the forests of Northern Ithilien.
Turning his glance southward, he saw the ribbon of the Road winding its way under the shadow of the mountains to the east, until it was lost behind the bend of the ridge. Far beyond, on the horizon, he thought he could descry a spur of mountain jutting out into the plain; somewhere in those distant peaks was the outpost of the Southern Door, Fennas Haradren.
Eastward, then, Boromir's eyes were drawn -- though reluctantly. There the Mountains of Shadow reared up sharply in front of him, backlit by the ever-present red glow of the fiery mountain behind. The Mount of Doom was hardly more than thirty leagues from where he stood, as the crow might fly -- far enough away, perhaps, yet still too close to be completely ignored.
A small rill ran through their hiding place, tumbling over rocks and tree roots to the valley below. Boromir knelt to drink from the shallow brook. He remained alert, scooping up the water and drinking from his hand, all the while keeping his eyes trained on the Road below, as he listened for the sound of returning feet.
The early morning breeze quickened and there was a soughing and sighing in the trees. The leaves fluttered overhead, their undersides flashing silver in the light of the sun as it rose above the clouds that hung over the land of Mordor. The day was advancing, and still no word came of the scouting party.
The call of a bird echoed along the ridge, and Boromir stood suddenly still and alert at the sound. The call was answered by another, then by a third.
Boromir smiled. At last!
Even as he turned away from the edge of the bluff, he saw Grithnir approaching.
"Have they come? Is all well?"
"Yes, my captain. The scouts have returned safely, and are ready to make their report."
"Excellent!" Boromir spoke calmly, but inwardly he was greatly relieved at the news. "Bring them to me. And tell the others to join us here. We will hear the report together and decide our next course of action."
"Yes, my lord Boromir."
The men gathered quickly, for all were eager to hear the report of the scout detail. The chief scout, a man named Henderch, stood before Boromir, awaiting his nod to begin speaking.
"Forgive the delay, my lord Captain," said Henderch, when all were present. "We were forced to wait in hiding to avoid being seen by Orc scouts that were passing northwards. They did not see us; we followed them at a distance for a time to be certain they would not trouble us. Do not fear; the Orcs are no longer of any concern to us, for they have moved on. There is no sign of any other movement, upon the Road or on either side of it, for ten leagues in either direction. The way is clear."
"Very good," replied Boromir, pleased. "We will proceed, then."
Boromir drew out a rolled map and laid it out on the ground, and Grithnir weighted the edges with a few stones.
"Faramir drew this map for me," Boromir explained. "It is sketchy, for he has not personally visited Fennas Haradren, but he is familiar with its general location. Henderch has looked at the map and confirms it to be sufficiently accurate. As you know, Henderch is the only one of us to have ever visited the outpost, so we will be relying upon his knowledge once we draw nigh to the secret path. The purpose of this map is to show you roughly where we are headed."
Boromir tapped the parchment with his finger.
"Our way of approach will be directly from the north, through Southern Itilien as far as the foothills here, where a spur of the mountain range extends out into the plain. I would estimate it to be roughly a quarter of the way between here and the crossing at the River Poros."
The men nodded in understanding.
"We might be there by dusk, if we hurry," continued Boromir. "We will cross the Road, in groups of five. Grithnir, you and Henderch will go with the first group; I shall follow with the last. When all are safely across, we will proceed through the woods until we reach the edge of the Mountains of Shadow."
One of the men stirred; glancing his way, Boromir nodded his confirmation.
"Yes, it is rare for men of Gondor to pass east of the Road in these dangerous times, and to walk in the very shadow of the Ephel Dúath is almost unheard of. But that is our path, if we are to find the Southern Door, and discover what is amiss. See that your flasks are filled with water before we leave this ridge. We shall have to move quickly once we cross to the other side of the Road, and we cannot stop, then, even for water. If I have my bearings and this map is accurate, we will reach no good stream until nightfall. Are there any questions?"
None were forthcoming, and Boromir was pleased; the men were as ready as he to move on. He pushed aside the stones on the edges of the map; it rolled up again with a sharp crackle of parchment.
"Let us be on our way."
A thorny branch of scrub dragged at Boromir's cloak as he led the way across a rocky outcropping; he clicked his tongue in irritation, as he yanked the edge free. Here on the slopes of the Mountains of Shadow, the land was drier and more barren. The scattered woodlands had failed upon reaching the Ephel Dúath, and there was now only scrub and stunted trees to give them shelter.
He saw Henderch approaching through the underbrush. Since he had been stationed for a time at the outpost of Fennas Haradren and knew the secret approach to the door, he had gone on ahead to scout out the passage through the mountains. Boromir stopped and waited for him to draw near, as the rest of the men gathered round.
"We are close now," said Henderch. He took a quick swig of water from his flask before going on. "You will have noticed how the mountains seem to turn and cut across our path ahead; the way is there. It climbs steeply up to a cleft that cannot be seen from below, a few leagues west of where the spur joins the main mass of the mountains."
"The door is on the north side of the hills?" asked Grithnir.
"Yes," nodded Henderch. "The name means Southern Door, but the door does not truly face south." He shrugged. "Perhaps it is named thus because Fennas Haradren was the southernmost of the secret places."
"Did you go as far as the Secret Door?" queried Boromir.
Henderch shook his head. "I went as far as I dared go alone. There is no sign that anyone has passed that way for some time. It has a deserted look."
A hiss of dread passed Boromir's lips before he could stop it.
"That does not bode well," he said darkly. "We must tarry no longer! It is imperative that we discover what has happened to our people there."
"It will be safe to approach now, I think," he said after a moment. "Darkness will be upon us by the time we reach the cleft."
Boromir turned and faced his men, looking each of them in the eye as he spoke.
"We do not know what to expect here, so we must be on our guard at all times. Only Henderch is familiar with the path, so he will go first, and I with him. Grithnir?"
Boromir's lieutenant stepped forward and gave the men his orders. "The archers will follow my lord Boromir; have your bows to hand and keep an arrow to the string. You others, draw your swords, and follow as you will; I will serve as rearguard."
He turned to Boromir.
"The men are ready."
Boromir drew his own sword, and nodded his own readiness.
"Lead on, Henderch."
The path up the mountainside was difficult, especially in the darkness, but they dared not light a torch for fear of being seen by unfriendly eyes. They climbed slowly and carefully and at last came to the cleft that would take them to the door. The wind off the mountainside whistled coldly through the roofless passage and sounded strangely like voices shrieking and wailing. Boromir strove not to think of it as a bad omen.
"It is safe enough to light a torch now," announced Henderch, "if tinder will catch in this wind. We are protected from being seen from above and below."
Several torches were lit, in spite of the stiff breeze, and the company proceeded through the narrow passage formed by sheer rock on either side, until they came to a broad area that opened up like an antechamber before the door of a great hall of Men. The wind whistled behind them in the cleft, but could no longer reach them here, for the area was protected from the wind by an overhanging slab of rock, and by the walls on either side. The doors of Fennas Haradren stood before them, tall and dark in the flickering torchlight.
But those doors stood ajar -- they had been ripped from their hinges and hung mangled and awry. The men stared in dismay at the sight. Henderch gave a strangled cry as he motioned for a torch to be held up for better light.
"My lord!" he cried, pointing to a figure that lay in the shadows, half in and half out of the open doorway.
Boromir stepped forward, and cursed angrily.
There lay a man -- or what was left of a man, dressed in the garb of a Ranger of Gondor. He was dead, and had been so for some time.
He had been torn limb from limb.
Boromir did not like waiting.
He looked westwards towards the setting sun, where the long shadows of scattered woodlands stretched out towards them across the undulating plains of Southern Ithilien. They were high enough on the mountain slope that Boromir thought he could see off in the distance the glint of the Anduin as it curved away towards Pelargir and the Great Bay.