Morning came with brighter sunlight than they had seen in days, and a rich chorus of birdsong from behind them in the fens and before them in the forest. Sam awoke and stretched his arms, wondering why he felt so much less stiff today. Then he remembered; it was the first sleep he'd had in five nights not cramped in the bottom of a rocking boat.
He sat up. Frodo was sitting cross-legged on the ground by a small, well-tended fire. The wizard lay curled on his left side, fast asleep beneath his cloak and a blanket. Frodo stirred the contents of a small pot that sat in the embers on the edge of the fire. He rose, walked a dozen feet away with the pot in his hand and gestured to Sam to join him.
"Good morning!" he whispered. "Gandalf hasn't had a fever since you woke me for my second watch. I think we should let him sleep."
"Yes," Sam muttered. "I don't think he slept once, not soundly at any rate, all the time we were in that tiny boat, what with the cramped space and the fevers and all."
Frodo pointed. "I dared another fire. We'd best be extra cautious about any smoke. But here's some hot breakfast: the last of the Rivendell porridge, and a few slivers of dried fruit."
The hobbits sat side by side on the springy moss and shared a spoon between them, passing the pot back and forth. They saved a portion for Gandalf, hoping he might wake hungry at last.
But at noon they decided to finish the cold porridge, for the wizard had not stirred. Frodo had checked on him many times, caressing his brow, lightly touching his fingers. He was neither too hot nor too cold, and though the hobbit couldn't help but be worried, he decided again that to give him as much healing sleep as his body would allow was the best medicine he could offer.
It was nearly dark, and Sam had long since thoroughly quenched the small fire, when finally Gandalf stirred and groaned.
"What is the time?" he muttered gruffly.
Frodo was sitting nearby, watching the lingering orange and violet glow in the western sky. "It is just past sunset, and today is March 4th by the Shire Reckoning," he said. "Are you hungry, Gandalf?"
The wizard rolled onto his back and groaned again. Using his left hand he pushed himself to a sitting position. Frodo jumped up to help him, supporting his shoulders as Gandalf swayed slightly. But to the hobbit's lasting delight, the wizard raised his right hand, rubbed it across his brow and growled irritably.
"Sunset! Fool of a hobbit! Why in Arda did you let me sleep so long?"
Frodo laughed. "It's good to have you back!"
After thoroughly scolding his companions for allowing him waste an entire day fast asleep, Gandalf finally admitted that perhaps they had been right. His fevers were gone, and he had no more chills. He was ravenously hungry, and with a scowl that just barely concealed a grin, he agreed that one more small fire could be risked for a hot meal.
"But it must be put out immediately," he snarled. "And no sleeping in tomorrow! We must break camp and leave at the first glimmer of daylight, and make up for lost time."
"And quite clearly, you'll need to make up for lost meals," Frodo chuckled as he watched the wizard reach for his third helping of Sam's stew. Frodo checked his arm after he'd finally scraped the last bits from the pot, and before the fire was extinguished. The gashes were still laid open, but there was no drainage and the last of the redness of his intact flesh was gone.
"How does it feel?" Frodo asked as he bound it again.
The wizard carefully flexed and clenched his fingers. He looked up, and Frodo felt again the keenness of his bright glance, missing for too many days.
"I believe you know exactly how much better it feels. Nothing but a shadow of discomfort remains, compared to yesterday, and for days before that." He reached out and clasped the hobbit's shoulder. "I am more than grateful..."
The hobbit flushed and looked down. "I only did what anyone would have..."
"Believe what you will, Frodo Baggins. But I know that what you did took courage, not to mention skill. Not just anyone has the ability to release the power of the athelas leaf."
Frodo gazed up. "You noticed that?"
"I did. Elrond himself has tended me through other scrapes and injuries and used that herb, and not even he has brought forth such a scent from it. Whatever you recited over it must have been powerful indeed..."
"I just asked for help...for you..."
Gandalf nodded. "As I said: powerful, and exactly what was required."
The hobbit smiled. "You're better, Gandalf. That's all that matters to me."
Dawn's first glimmer had barely appeared when the travelers launched their boat the next morning, Frodo claiming the stern and Sam in the prow one last time. Gandalf instructed them to steer west and south, hugging the shore of the mainland but staying hidden in the clumped trees as much as possible. Solid land gained on the fens, and slowly the southward current grew swifter. A few hours after sunrise, when the east bank began to rise, the wizard bade them make their final landfall.
"And now we must release our little swan from her service to us," Gandalf said solemnly. "I would not have her founder in the heart of the Wetwang, never to find an open stream again, or be sullied by Orcs, or broken apart for firewood. Nay, she deserves more than that from us."
Once again he removed his boots and waded into the stream, guiding the boat beside him. He ran his fingertips along the gunwales, and then he gently pushed her away and into the current. "Fare thee well, Alqualielle!" he said quietly. "From here, you shall find your way back to broad Anduin. Come at last to the Sea, and to the West, where the kin of your makers will welcome you to their white harbor, if that is what you wish… Or find new and worthy companions among those who live along Anduin's shores, or in the Bay beyond, who shall love thee and treat thee respectfully. Farewell, and our thanks, Telperevé!"
The small grey boat seemed to linger for a moment, drifting slowly and turning to the side. Then it caught a stronger current and floated away, gaining speed. Gandalf stood and watched until the boat was just a dot bobbing in the distance on the shining waters. He turned and waded to shore.
"It is always a good investment to thank those who have helped one along one's path," he said, as he pulled on his boots.
The wizard led them up the bank and into the dense woodlands of North Ithilien. They gained height quickly and crested the first of many rolling ridges that swept down diagonally to the Great River, and soon all sight and sound of the flowing water was lost to them. Up and down they walked, beneath a thick canopy of trees, bearing south and east.
For the first time, Frodo and Sam felt in truth how far south from their homeland they had come in their long months of travel. In the Shire, the first weeks of March would still be brown and dull, with cold rains and grey skies to remind them of winter's reluctance to release its dominion. Only those hardy plants that held their greenery all year would carry any color. But in Ithilien, spring had already arrived. The trees and shrubs were beginning to unfurl their green flags, and the ground was covered with spreading herbs and clumped plants dotted with flower buds. Sam recognized hawthorn and rowan, cedar and hornbeam, myrtle and bay, but his head was soon spinning with the many trees and plants new to his eyes and nose.
They passed through many open glades, some with ancient walls of stone, fallen and crumbling, draped with fragrant, trailing thyme beginning to show tiny purple stars. In one such glade the hobbits noticed rows of smaller trees, all of one sort, seemingly planted with a purpose in mind, yet untended and overgrown with twisting vines of wild grape.
"It looks like an orchard gone to ruin," Sam said.
Frodo sniffed. "Pear, if I'm not mistaken. They look as though they'll be in bloom in just a few weeks."
"Indeed, all these parts were once settled, and the farms and lands of Ithilien were rich and productive," Gandalf said. "But war came, and those who were not murdered in their beds fled west to Anorien, or to the Pelennor, or to the City. No one has tended this orchard in generations."
The rich pleasant land seemed empty and peaceful. They heard nothing but the wind in the trees, the bubbling of small, clear streams that they crossed, and the twitter of brightly colored birds returning to welcome spring. But Gandalf warned them to move quietly, and be watchful.
"For do not forget that nearly everything east of Anduin is now under the Enemy's control. This seemingly peaceful land is at war. We will be fortunate if we slip through without an encounter with his servants."
As if to give harsh credence to the wizard's warning, within the hour they crested a hill and came suddenly upon a scene of carnage. A circle of recently burned earth lay before them, and all around it the fair trees and shrubs had been hacked wantonly and left to die. In the center of the blackened ground was a pile of embers. White bones, broken and charred, were carelessly strewn about; several man-sized skulls lay within the pile of refuse. The hobbits stared in horror, imagining the gruesome feast that had taken place there, not long ago.
Gandalf gazed grimly at the scene for a moment. He closed his eyes and drew in a long, deep breath before releasing it in a sigh. Without a word he turned and strode away swiftly, and the hobbits followed in silence. They gave no complaint when he urged them forward at a faster pace.
When the wizard finally called for a halt that evening they had walked nearly eight leagues. After days of too little motion in the cramped boat, the hobbits were weary, and they were grateful to stretch out on the ground in the sheltered hollow Gandalf found for them to hide for the night.
"I dare say I needed the exercise," Sam groaned softly. "But I can guarantee that my legs will be protesting mightily come morning, when I ask them to do it all over again."
The long shadows of the fences of Mordor hid the rising sun from the travelers, but that did not stop Gandalf from prodding them to begin the next leg of their journey early the following day. The land gradually became wilder. The ridges seemed higher, and they left signs of abandoned farmsteads and stonework behind as they crept ever closer to the Mountains of Shadow.
As they stood on the crest of a ridge, Gandalf pointed east to where the land seemed to fall away into a long valley running perpendicular to their path.
"The ancient road of Ithilien runs on the far side of that valley," he said. "Of old it ran north and curved east, providing a sure path for the guardians encamped before the empty towers and the Black Gate itself; for after the defeat of the Enemy at the end of the Second Age, a watch was kept by the men of Gondor for many centuries, striving to keep their foes out of their old strongholds. But their attention was drawn elsewhere, and their vigilance faltered, and the fortresses of Sauron were reoccupied and strengthened."
"Where does it go as it runs south?" Sam asked, peering down the slope.
"The road was once well maintained all the way to South Gondor, and beyond. Three great cities there were, in Gondor in her glory: Osgiliath, that straddled the Great River and was the chief city; Minas Anor in the White Mountains on the west; and Minas Ithil in the east. A second great road still runs from east to west, through the heart of the ruins of Osgiliath and connecting the three. But only Minas Anor--now Minas Tirith--remains, little changed in all but her name; for Osgiliath was destroyed centuries ago, and Minas Ithil fell to the Enemy, and is now the stronghold of his chief servant, the Witch King. We will make for the crossroads where the north-south road and the east-west one intersect. It is perhaps eighty miles from where we now stand. I hope to arrive there by no later than three days from now."
At mid-day they halted and hid themselves in a steep-walled, rocky cleft, overgrown with gorse and bracken. A clear freshet bubbled down the damp wall of stone and gathered into a tiny pool, edged all about with moss and a crown of red-veined leaves with tiny nodding white blossoms. Gandalf directed them to a shelf near the pool, already deep in shadow.
"We should rest here until sunset," he said quietly. "I think it is time that we traveled under the cover of darkness."
After they had eaten, Frodo checked his wound, and found to his relief that the long gashes he had made nearly six days ago were at last showing signs of healing.
"They are beginning to knit together," he said as he bound the wizard's arm in clean cloth. "You'll have to take care not to tear these open again."
But Gandalf clenched his fist, frowning as he tested his grip. "Too weak," he muttered. "I must regain my strength, as soon as possible. Don't worry!" He returned Frodo's look of exasperation with a steely glare. "I promise to be as careful as the situation warrants."
That's not much of a promise, the hobbit thought. He began to protest. But the wizard was in no mood for more discussion. He cut Frodo off. "Get some sleep, if you can--both of you. I will take the first watch, and we will leave again when it is fully night."
The hobbits wrapped their cloaks about themselves and settled onto the carpet of last year's vegetation. Frodo listened as Sam's breathing deepened to a faint snore. No chance until now, he thought. Well, this is as good a time as any. He sat up, careful not to rustle the dry leaves, and joined the wizard in his perch halfway up the slope of the cleft. Gandalf raised one brow.
"Gandalf," he whispered. "There is something I have been meaning to ask about the route you proposed. I looked at enough maps in Rivendell and Lorien. The valley you said we would climb toward, in the Ephel Dúath, is where Minas Ithil sits. Isn't that correct?"
The wizard sighed. "It is, although its name is now Minas Morgul. And I suppose you are wondering how I could possibly think that to attempt the Nameless Pass would be any safer than the Black Gate..."
"Yes!" Frodo hissed. The hobbit could hear the shrill panic in his voice. He struggled to control it. "I don't know if I can bring myself go that way!"
Gandalf regarded him steadily. "I think you discount your own courage. You have proven it often enough on this journey. I have no doubt of it."
Frodo tried to slow his breathing as the wizard went on quietly.
"I would never suggest such a route if I thought there were any other way, Frodo. I, too, spent my time gathering information in Rivendell and Lorien. I spoke at length to two who entered the Black Gate at the end of the last age: Elrond, who was second in command to Gil-Galad, and Celeborn, who fought beside them. They confirmed what I already suspected. The northern route is impossible; the Gate is fifty feet high, three hundred across and forged from solid steel. It is ceaselessly patrolled. Every crevice of the mountains about it for fifty leagues in either direction is teeming with Orcs and all sorts of other evil creatures. There is no other logical way for those who would enter in secret to penetrate the screen of the mountains but from the west, over the Ephel Dúath."
Frodo felt sick as a bone-chilling ache began to clutch at his left shoulder.
"But know this, Frodo," Gandalf said. "I will not bring you any closer to the City of the Ringwraiths than is absolutely necessary. The main pass circles south and east of the walls of Minas Morgul; it does not go through it. Remember, I took that road myself once. And it seemed to me that although the heights on either side of that fell road are steep, they are not impenetrable...particularly if one stays to the right, south of the main way."
"But won't all of that be guarded, too?" Frodo whispered.
"Of course. But we have to find some way. And perhaps, as the Nazgûl and their Master turn their eyes and their attention to other things--the coming invasion of Gondor, for example--their guard will be less." The wizard laid his hand on the hobbit's shoulder. "I promise, Frodo, that when we reach the crossroads, I will draw another map and teach you and Sam everything I can remember about that place, and every detail of what lies beyond it...just in case."
Frodo frowned. "In case of what?"
Gandalf's face was hidden in shadow. "It is always best to prepare for any contingency. Now, if you can sleep, you should. I will wake Sam in two hours, and you will have the last watch before we go on."
Frodo lay curled on his side listening to Sam's deep breathing. His mind was racing, and sleep eluded him. Any contingency? He can only mean if we are separated from him...but why should that happen? His fretting thoughts slowly merged with an evil dream in which he seemed to be watching from above as Black Riders galloped down a dark and desolate road, and in their midst was...
"Begging your pardon," Sam whispered, as he shook Frodo's shoulder. "I truly hate to wake you, Mr. Frodo, but Gandalf said you must wake now, and I agree with him."
The clouded sky was pale in the late afternoon as Frodo opened his eyes. "Is it time for my watch?" he muttered as he tried to shake off sleep and the clinging sense of dread from his nightmare.
"No, but something's up, and he said we'd best get ready, just in case..."
That phrase again, Frodo thought as he snapped to alertness and sat up. Now what? He and Sam crept to where Gandalf leaned, propped on the steep wall of the crevice, his head just peeking over the rim. Then Frodo heard the sounds of marching, and harsh voices singing in a strange tongue. He slid up next to Gandalf's shoulder.
"Who are they?" he whispered. He caught brief glimpses, only a hundred yards away, of rank on rank of armored men dressed in red and gold. The slanting light caught the tips of spears held high, and their banner, three golden crescent moons on a red field, fluttered in the breeze.
"Haradrim," Gandalf said softly. "From a realm of high mountains and swift rivers that sits between the desert lands and a bay of the Great Southern Sea. They go to swell the ranks of the Enemy's armies. I led us too far east. The road is much closer than I thought; we would not be so near to it if I had been more careful."
The three travelers watched and listened as the men marched on. The Haradrim's numbers were many, and they passed by the hidden watchers for at least twenty minutes. Far off they heard a strange call, like a brazen horn blown on a note that rose and fell. Gandalf sighed and shook his head.
"What was that?" Sam whispered.
"Mûmakil," the wizard replied with a sad frown. "Oliphaunts of the southern forests. They are magnificent and intelligent creatures, and to be enslaved as though they were nothing but machines for war..." He shook his head again.
"Oliphaunts!" Sam sighed. "Well, I never! I wish they would come closer... What a thing to see!"
Gandalf said nothing, and they waited as the noises gradually faded.
"We will wait until it is fully dark," he said at last. "Then we will turn more directly south, and keep the road to our left."
At two hours past sunset they followed the wizard as he picked a careful path through the starless and moonless night. He could see better in the darkness than either of the hobbits, though Frodo's night sight was uncannily keen after he had recovered from the Morgul-knife wound. But poor Sam could barely see his hand before his face, and he tripped more than once before Frodo decided to walk directly beside him to guide his way.
They had not gone more than a few miles when Frodo, following ten feet behind the wizard, saw him stiffen and abruptly halt. His hand was thrust out and back in a warning gesture. The hobbit stopped in his tracks and held his breath. But Sam, his eyes focused on the ground beneath his feet in an effort to avoid tripping again, kept moving. His round head bumped into Gandalf's back, and they both stumbled forward, with a low curse from the wizard.
At once, the empty woods were alive. Six tall men, garbed in dark green and wearing masks and gloves, leapt out of the darkness and surrounded them, four with arrows readied on fully drawn bows. The fifth held a covered lantern, and the sixth and tallest stepped forward.
"Bring the lantern, Anborn," he said in Sindarin. That he was their leader was easily apparent, in his manner, by the way the others deferred to him and by the intensity of his dark gaze. His hand was upon the hilt of the long sword at his side when he called out sharply. "Who dares to trespass in the lands of Gondor?" He paused and frowned, leaning forward to peer at Gandalf's hooded face. His eyes flew open. "By the stars! Mithrandir!" he said.
The wizard reached up and pulled back his hood. The man named Anborn raised his lantern. Frodo looked up. He saw caution on Gandalf's face; then a warm smile broke through.
"Faramir!" he said, as he reached for the tall man. "Or I should say, Captain Faramir…or perhaps it is Captain-General these days?"
They clasped hands, and Faramir grinned. "That title is already taken!" He waved his hand and his archers lowered their weapons carefully. Then his smile faded. "What chance brings you here, old friend? I would speak at length with you, and hear your news, but we have an urgent errand tonight, and cannot tarry." At last he glanced at the hobbits and saw them clearly for the first time. His men had been staring with undisguised curiosity.
"Who are…your companions?" he said with a tone of awe in his voice as he took in their stature.
Frodo bowed his head. "Frodo Baggins, of the Shire, at your service; and my companion Samwise Gamgee." Sam bowed awkwardly.
"Periannath…" Faramir said under his breath. He stared at Gandalf as he waved to Anborn, his lieutenant. "Anborn, I will halt briefly to speak to these travelers. Continue on with the troops and ready our position, at the place we have discussed, and I will join you shortly. Mablung, Damrod, wait for me, over there," he said, indicating a place far enough to be out of the range of hearing. "Leave the light."
Anborn frowned, and leaned in to mutter into his Captain's ear. Faramir scowled and flushed. "My father's decree is indeed explicit. But I ask you, how would you suggest I apply it in this particular circumstance?" He nodded his head toward Gandalf. Anborn reddened in his turn, glared at the wizard, and bowed stiffly before turning away.
The men melted into the darkness as Faramir turned to the three travelers. He removed his mask, and Frodo saw his clear resemblance to Boromir. He had the same dark hair and neatly trimmed dark beard, a similar well-sculpted face and grey eyes. But Faramir was leaner, and his demeanor was more serious. He is the younger, yet has more wisdom, the hobbit thought.
"Anborn is correct," he said quietly. "The law of Gondor makes no exceptions, and commands that I take all of you back to Minas Tirith to be judged by the Steward. But it is my judgment that unless you are willing to make such a journey…" and a grim smile appeared on his face as he regarded the wizard, "…such a task could be rather difficult."
Gandalf grunted. "I would have come with you to Minas Tirith without delay at any other time, and indeed, had things been different, I might have been there already. But our errand is urgent as well, and prevents us from obeying the Steward's decree. I thank you, Faramir, for your willingness to apply your own wisdom in what are, indeed, unique and imperative circumstances."
Faramir's gaze narrowed as he looked at the wizard. He moved the lamp slightly to allow the narrow beam to fall upon Gandalf's face. "Are you well, Mithrandir? If I didn't know better, I would say that you had been ill."
"He has been ill," Frodo said. "He had a poisoned arrow wound..."
"And I am recovering," Gandalf interrupted. "Thanks to Frodo, who tended me, quite expertly." He nodded to the hobbit.
"I would hear all your tale, if there were more time," Faramir said.
"Time enough for this," Gandalf said, smiling. "We bring you greetings from one close to you. Boromir sends his regards and his love to his brother." Faramir's face lit up. "We last saw him just over a week ago. He may well have arrived in the White City by now."
"How was he?" the man asked eagerly.
"He was well, when we parted," the wizard said. "We traveled together from Imladris…"
Faramir's eyes widened and his gaze dropped again to the hobbits. Frodo felt the intensity of the man's scrutiny. He was reminded not so much of Boromir, but of Aragorn.
"Imladris... Then are you the Halfling mentioned in the rhyme that came oft to me, and once to my brother, in a dream?"
Frodo looked up at Gandalf; the wizard nodded slightly. "Boromir told us of the dream, and yes, I must assume that we are the Halflings mentioned."
"And Isildur's Bane?" Faramir said in a low, urgent voice. "What is it, and why does your errand bring you here?"
"As the rhyme said, It has awakened," Frodo said, as heat rose into his face unexpectedly. "But It remains hidden, as does my errand, and it would be wise to leave It so."
The Captain of Gondor frowned at the hobbit, who met his gaze with equal surety of purpose. Faramir saw the same steely resistance in Gandalf's eyes.
"Hidden, you say," he said, his voice growing hard. "Yet clearly you know of this thing, and the full meaning of the riddle. May I remind you that the land in which you walk--without leave--is at war. The Steward, and I, as his Commander in Ithilien, cannot simply allow the one named in that portentous verse to vanish with no explanation. If I live through tomorrow, I will soon depart to stand before the Steward's chair and give my report." He turned his frown on the wizard. "You are well acquainted with my father, the Steward Denethor, Mithrandir. He will not be pleased to learn not only how I flout his command, but return with nothing but the news that you, of all people, roam without leave in his realm, and more riddles. Surely you can tell me something of your errand!"
Frodo opened his mouth, but the wizard spoke first.
"Boromir will explain everything to you, including the reasons why we cannot--nay, why we dare not. Indeed, if I am not mistaken, your brother will have already borne the brunt of your father's wrath with the recounting of his tale. And as for us, I can only tell you this: the very survival of Gondor, and all other realms and peoples who would live free and not enslaved beneath skies of everlasting darkness, depends on the success of our errand--on the success of these Halflings. I accompany them to help them, in whatever way I can. But the errand is theirs." Gandalf's face grew stern, and his eyes flashed in the lantern light. "And if you have a mind to try to interfere, Captain Faramir, consider first that I stand by them, and I will do whatever I must to prevent you, or anyone, from thwarting them." The wizard's face softened. "I'm afraid that you will simply have to trust us."
Faramir gazed into the wizard's eyes, and his frown faded. He looked down again at Frodo, and the hobbit saw in the man's face how the burden of command in such harsh times had forced him to take on roles he might otherwise never have sought.
"Do you trust him?" Faramir asked softly, as he tilted his head slightly toward Gandalf.
Frodo glanced briefly at Gandalf, then turned his eyes toward Faramir. "Yes," he replied. "I trust him absolutely."
A wan smile appeared on the Captain's face. "As do I," he said as he turned to the wizard. "Indeed, it was Mithrandir who, when I was a boy with a broken, mistrustful heart, taught me the meaning of the word."
"I merely helped reawaken what was already there," Gandalf said quietly.
Faramir sighed. "Alas, the time is running short. We go to lay an ambush for the Haradrim at a narrow defile through which the road passes north of where they now lie encamped. Tomorrow our small company will test the mettle of the men of the South. They march forward rashly, with little caution, as though they are already within the fences of the Enemy. We intend to teach them that the shadows of their Master's Ephel Dúath are not enough to protect them from the stalwart Men of Gondor."
He turned to the darkness and whistled once. Damrod and Mablung appeared. "We will go in a moment." They nodded and stepped back a pace to wait.
Gandalf placed his hand on Faramir's arm. "A favor, Captain. I realize you and your men are on patrol and thus carry few supplies; but our journey has been long and will yet be longer still, and on our road there will be no chance for provisioning. Our rations will soon run short. Do you suppose..."
The Captain nodded. "Seasoned campaigners, I see." He swung off his own pack, knelt and quickly removed a wrapped packet from within. "Take this," he said. "I can find sufficient for the day's journey with my men, and tomorrow evening we will either re-supply, or the need for sustenance will have passed."
He spoke quickly to the two soldiers waiting, and although they seemed surprised by their Captain's request, they both surrendered their food rations.
Faramir turned to the hobbits. "Fare you well, Frodo and Samwise, and success in your urgent and imperative errand, whatever it may be. Whether we will meet again, I know not, for all our paths will be fraught with peril from this day forward, until an end comes to these dark days that I cannot foresee." He leaned down and pressed their hands firmly.
The hobbits bowed formally. "May the Valar go with you, Captain Faramir," Frodo said. "All speed in your safe return to your City, and give Boromir our fondest greetings."
Faramir turned to the wizard. "And farewell to you, old friend." He reached out and clasped his hand; then his smile faded, and his voice grew hoarse. "Mithrandir, I..."
"Until we meet again, Faramir," the wizard said as he looked intently into the Captain's eyes. "May starlight shine upon your path, and may you come safely to your father's halls." He smiled warmly. "And may you find your brother there, waiting to welcome you home."
The three travelers waited and watched as Faramir quenched the small lantern. He nodded to his men and with as little sound as the night wind, the men of Gondor vanished into the darkness beneath the trees.
Gandalf stood watching the place where the Captain had stood for only a moment. "Let us continue southwards, until this night has passed."
The wizard led them carefully through the undergrowth. But despite their slower pace, Sam continued to stumble and grope in the deep darkness. Gandalf stopped and pulled a long silver scarf from his bag. He tied one end of it to the side of his belt, swung his cloak back and clear of it, and handed the other end to Sam.
"Hold onto this," he said. "I'll try to shorten my stride."
With Frodo guiding him from behind, and with his eyes focused on the faint glimmer of the wizard's scarf before him, Sam finally found his footing and was able to keep up with their pace. When the glow of morning slowly wakened behind the dark wall of the Ephel Dúath, they had come five leagues since parting from Faramir, and had covered a total of ten leagues since they set out at dawn. They found a sheltered, hollowed out stony wall surrounded by a thick screen of fragrant juniper, and hid for the rest of the day.
Soon after they set out on the following evening, they encountered a fast-moving river, too deep for the hobbits to ford.
"We dare not use the road and its bridge," Gandalf said as he peered northward, "We are too close to the field of battle, and know not the outcome of Captain Faramir's encounter with the Haradrim." Instead, the wizard played the role of beast of burden and ferried them across on his shoulders, one by one. Moonlight sparkled on the shimmering surface as he waded in chest-high water, leaning on his staff to steady himself. In all, Gandalf made three trips across the stream to bring his companions and their bags safely across. When Frodo tried to insist that they halt to wring out and dry his drenched clothing, he scowled.
"I'll dry as well on the move as holding still," he muttered.
As they rested by day, the deepening silence of the land oppressed their spirits. The sky was dim, even at noon, as thick clouds hovered low and the wind ceased. They saw no beasts, and even the birds had gone into hiding. All Ithilien was holding its breath, it seemed, waiting for the hammer stroke to fall.
"The invasion of Gondor is imminent," Gandalf whispered. "Let us hope that all our friends find their way to safety before the dam bursts."
Frodo and Sam thought of all their far-flung companions and wondered where they might be, and whether they were safe. But the three of them were going toward the heart of the flood, and the wizard urged them on as fast as they could manage, hoping to reach the mountains before the hosts of Mordor came streaming over them. For two more nights, the travelers pressed on at as swift a pace as the increasingly rough terrain allowed.