The Dragon and the Fox

by Varda

Chapter 105: No Story can Tell

Aragorn was right, of course. We never went back to Minas Tirith. The last time I set foot in Gondor was the day we left it, more than forty years ago. Now I, Callanach Steward of Harondor, have decided to set down a chronicle of the events of those years...’’

Callanach paused and laid down his pen. In all that time, had he ever missed his homeland? The biting North wind, the bleak fells, the silent lakes like pieces of sky frozen on the ground....Callanach felt the years; the white streak in his jet black hair was indistinct now. For all was turning grey. He gazed out at the open terrace. It was after midnight and the sky was ablaze with desert stars. Below them the darkness was broken by the fires of nomads camping outside the city. The scent of jasmine wafted up from the gardens and somewhere the sweet sound of a harp threaded the silence.

Where else to begin than at the start?

‘’After we left Minas Tirith we passed through Ithilien on our way to the land of the Haradrim, meeting no-one on our way. We thought this was because the people of Ithilien had suffered greatly from the inroads of the Haradrim and were unhappy that the King should now try to make peace with them. But as we prepared to cross the shallow, rocky ford over the river Poros Liofa held up a hand and said;
``There are armed men in the woods beyond the river; thirty at least. They are watching us….``

We knew that Aragorn had ordered the Rangers of Ithilien to allow us safe passage, but an ambush was always a possibility in these uncertain times. I went to draw my sword, but Marfach stayed my hand.
``No!`` he said. ``It is Faramir….``

And with that a bay horse emerged from the trees and stepping proudly it crossed one of the small tributary streams towards us. Its rider was Faramir.

The last time I had seen the lord of Ithilien and former steward of Gondor was when he was recuperating in the Houses of Healing. He still looked thin and pale but now his long fair hair streamed out golden in the sunshine and his handsome face glowed from wind and sun. He moved quickly and with determination and as he cantered his horse up to us I could see his grey eyes twinkling and I realised that he was glad to see Marfach again. The former enemy of his people, for his part, sat on his black desert pony and a smile softened his fierce features. When they met to my great surprise Marfach leaned across and they embraced. They talked for some time, but what was said I do not know as the sound of the river carried their words away.....’

Marfach spoke first. ‘I did not think we would ever meet again my lord Faramir, this side of death’
Faramir smiled and replied; ‘Nor I, Croga. It appears we have both been spared to see another age of this Middle Earth.’
‘You, perhaps, noble prince’ said Marfach. ‘Not me. I go to my doom.’
Faramir’s smile vanished. ‘But you are free now, Marfach...’
Marfach shook his head
‘You have heard perhaps of what passed in Rivendell?’ he asked. Faramir nodded grimly. Marfach sighed and said;
‘Elrond says I am safe, but such a one as I will never be safe. Even if the Dark Lord never touches me again even in dream, my day is done. I feel a winter in my blood, even so far south’ Marfach nodded towards his entourage. ‘They do not know, but I have known since Rivendell.’
He indicated his long dreadlocked hair, once red and now silver and smiled sadly. ‘I am dying, Faramir. Now that I am mortal, the years held back by the power of Sauron are rushing up on me. It is my desire not to fade away, but to die in battle. There are few places now that can offer an eager warrior death in battle, but I am going to the one people still anxious to provide it; the Haradrim.’

Faramir did not speak to Marfach again. He looked for a long into his grey eyes, still tinged with red, then leaned forward in his saddle and embraced him. And without a word the lord of Ithilien and the last Steward of Gondor turned his red horse and slowly rode back across the river up the bank and away into his realm without once looking back.

The Haradrim were galloping hard in their direction, their black and grey desert ponies raising a cloud of gritty yellow dust. Marfach led his small band towards them at no less a pace, the great dark blue banner of Gondor flapping above them in the desert wind. Fior squinted against the blinding sun, trying to make out details of the Haradrim. Soon they were close enough for him to see the black armour they wore, close fitting like the scales of a serpent, and their burnished brass helms and the black scarves that concealed their faces. As they got close they threw their round shining bucklers in front and lowered their long lances and yelled their strange war cries. Fior’s mouth was dry; would they run straight into a fight with no parley at all?

When the two groups were no more than a spear’s throw apart one of the Haradrim spurred out in front of the others and rode athwart their ranks, a dangerous move that made his comrades rein in sharply. They raised their lances to set them at rest and fighting to control their startled horses they stamped and circled to a halt. Having stopped their charge, the solitary Haradrim warrior turned and galloped towards the Gondorians.

Marfach watched him approach and gradually a smile spread over his hawkish face. When the man stopped before him he said calmly;
‘I am glad you lived to see your homeland again, Salanda..’
The Southron pulled the scarf down revealing a face dark from the sun, with a scar on his cheek and a golden ring in one ear. He showed white teeth in a wolflike grin.
‘I can thank you for that, Marfach.’ he said in the Common Tongue, comprehensible but strongly accented. ‘After you persuaded some of the army to return home I was able to accompany them. All the Haradrim who survived name you as their saviour.’

Their spears now at rest the Haradrim had their attention fixed on Marfach and they seemed to be in awe of him. Marfach smiled and replied;
‘Well then, that should make our task in this land easier. I am sent to bring the King’s peace to Harondor. All who swear allegiance to the King of Gondor will have his protection.....’

Salanda’s smile vanished. He gave a quick shake of his head and moved his horse closer to Marfach so his words would not be heard by anyone else.
‘I would swear allegiance to your King here and now, Marfach. He could not be a more vicious tyrant than Siota, who rules us now with a hand of iron. But it is not up to me....’
‘Siota?’ said Marfach grimly.’How did that gilded vulture escape the slaughter of the Pelennor?’
Salanda showed his teeth. ‘By the same way you escaped, I suppose. Supernatural assistance...’

In spite of himself Marfach laughed. Then he looked at Salanda and said;
‘Where is he?’
Salanda turned in his saddle and scanned the horizon. Above the level sandy plain heat mirages wavered like images under water. Above them a column of dust spiralled up into the brassy sky. Salanda pointed to it.
‘We are but a scouting party. That is his main army. He knew you were in Harondor the moment you crossed the Poros. Now he is coming to meet you. To meet you and kill you.’

Marfach took a deep breath and turned his horse away and rode aside, beckoning to his comrades. They dismounted and Marfach said to Liofa.
‘Elf, once upon a time, before you had the misfortune to know me, you were the harpist of the King of Mirkwood, were you not?’
Liofa frowned. He did not think his friendship with Marfach was a misfortune, but he nodded. Marfach pointed to a bundle wrapped in cloth of Elven weave, strapped behind Liofa’s saddle.
‘And you have brought your harp to this land, in hopes that you will compose and once again be what you were born to be, a singer?’

Liofa did not answer at once. He was thinking back to an evening in Rivendell when Lord Elrond summoned him to the room the Elves called the Observatory. When Liofa entered he was surprised to see Legolas there. He bowed his knee at once, for Legolas was the son of Thranduil, Liofa’s king and lord. But Legolas moved to raise him up.
‘Do not kneel to me, Liofa.’ he said. ‘I am not your prince but your friend.’

Liofa straightened up, his face showing his astonishment. Legolas smiled. He bowed to Elrond, who stood beside them and he said
‘Lord Elrond has told me that you intend to accompany Croga, or Marfach as he once was, to the South, on the errand the King gave him.’
Legolas paused. Liofa could see he was struggling to find words, even he, an Elf...

‘What troubles me is the hatred that I have felt for Croga.’ Legolas said at last. ‘A hatred shared by all Elves but a hatred none the less, and unworthy of us all. When I heard that you were going to accompany Croga I felt....proud. But also relieved, and guilty. I wished to do some good, to make some gesture, in return for what I have said and done against this being who was once of our kind.’

Then Legolas turned and picked up something swathed in black silk and handed it to Liofa.
‘This is your harp, the Black Harp you left behind in the halls of King Thranduil. Take it with you to the south, and if your embassy is successful, let the desert ring with the sound of Elven song. For there can be no better healer than music....’

‘Yes...’ said Liofa hesitantly to Marfach. ‘I do indeed have my harp with me...’
Marfach abandoned his light tone and looked deep into the Elf’s eyes.
‘We have made a long journey together, Liofa my friend, but it is coming to an end. I task you when you journey on without me to make a song of it, for no chronicle or story can ever tell it as it was, nor would it ever be believed.....’

The dust cloud was getting closer. Marfach nodded at Salanda who rode back to his men and ordered them also to dismount. Then he calmly began to unwind the long scarf that protected his head from the sun. He shook out his long hair, silver now but still long and dreadlocked. He unclasped his cloak and handed it to Fior.
‘Be you my squire today, young Ranger. I know you once harboured hatred for me because I slew your friend. Well all deaths will be answered today. Forgive me.’

Fior, open-mouthed, took Marfach’s cloak and the scabbard of his sword that he also handed over. Then Marfach turned to Callanach and embraced him. He stepped back and smiled.
‘I am glad it will end like this, Storm. I would have made a very poor civil servant but you will be the first and the greatest Steward of Harondor....’

When the army of Siota, lord of the Haradrim, came upon them Marfach was ready. He stood on his own with a sword of Gondor in his one hand and a small Harad buckler strapped to his other arm. Salanda had promised Marfach that in payment of his debt he would not take any part in this encounter and he and his scouts did not move when their chieftain drew up in a cloud of dust and sat on his sweat-lathered black horse glaring at them.
‘Sons of dogs!’ he shouted at them in their own tongue. ‘Why have you not slain him?’
And he pointed to Marfach with his whip.

Salanda got to his feet and walked slowly across to his chieftain. Behind Siota his army, numbering several hundred horsemen, sat staring at Marfach and muttering to each other. Salanda said in a voice loud enough for them all to hear;
‘I will not touch the Red Dragon because he is a demon as everyone here knows. A terrible fate awaits any who strike him and do not slay him. If Lord Siota wishes to kill Marfach, he must do it himself...’

Uproar broke out in the army. Siota was yelling at Salanda but even he could not make himself heard above the din of his own men. In exasperation he reached over and yanked a war horn from one of his men and blew a long raucous blast on it, finally bringing silence.
‘Is there not one of you here who will do his lord’s bidding?’ he bellowed at them.

The silence deepened. The Haradrim stared coldly at their leader. Siota, clad in gilded leaf armour and a red cloak and wearing a golden pendant round his neck and gold rings studded with garnet on his hands glared back in fury. Like many cruel overlords before him, like Sauron himself, Siota was learning that a leader who rules by fear will be defied by his people when one appears whom they fear even more.

‘They will not fight me, Siota...’ said Marfach in a calm, almost amused voice. ‘It is for us to complete our unfinished business. Do you not wish to avenge your champion Gread, whom I slew before the eyes of your other army, the one you lost in Gondor?’

There was a ripple of suppressed laughter. Siota’s eyes bulged, their whites bloodshot. He remained silent for some moments, collecting his wits. Siota might be angry but he was no fool. Breathing hard, he spoke in a calm voice;
‘Very well, if that is what the Haradrim wish, so be it. I will show them what you are, Marfach; no demon but just a cripple. Your powers are gone and you are nothing but a shell, a ghost. You will be sorry you asked for this fight. But if it is to be, let it be!’

With quick, impatient movements Siota dismounted and began to prepare himself for the fight. On the other side Fior approached Marfach and offered him a flask of wine. Marfach took just a sip and handed it back. He smiled.
‘Thank you, Fior...’

As he had done so long ago for the other contest, Salanda marked out a wide circle in the sand. ‘Who will be the judge?’ he asked and Callanach stepped forward.
‘I am the steward of King Elessar who outranks all here...’ Siota opened his mouth in protest but Salanda and Liofa both spoke at once;
‘Aye; we will be seconds.’

Marfach paced the circle, glancing up at the sky. It was just after noon, the worst time for a fight; the sun beat straight down and the heat would sap their energy. But Marfach wanted the contest to be over quickly; the sun would not have time to weaken them.

Siota walked forward holding a long, curved scimitar. The blade was of fine blue steel, with a pattern like waves; a weapon of the very best Southron make. Marfach shifted his grip on his own sword, feeling its weight, balancing it, aware of it like a living thing, an extension of himself. Beyond the circle the entire army held its breath and kept silent. Even the horses made no sound....

In the end Siota attacked first, his anger getting the better of him. Marfach parried him easily, feeling strong, but he gave ground to Siota, feeding his rage by appearing indecisive. The Southron’s face was glistening with sweat, not of fear but of rage. He doubled his blows and the clang of metal on metal rang out over the desert.

Siota had the advantage as Marfach was one handed. The southerner made full use of this, shifting his sword from hand to hand and so varying his attack and not tiring himself. Marfach however could only parry blows with the small targe on his left arm. He felt bruises forming on his forearm, but schooled himself not to notice the pain. A murmuring arose from the army; Siota was now driving Marfach before him. Once, he stumbled and almost fell, and Siota was on him like a cat, darting the tip of his scimitar under Marfach’s guard. It slashed through his Gondorian mail and opened a long cut across his chest. But he sprang back in time and the wound was not deep. But he could feel the warmth of blood seeping through his tunic and into the links of the mail. Siota smiled.

Marfach took a tighter grip on his sword. His palm was sweating but his grip was firm. With his heightened senses he was aware that many in the Haradrim army did not want him to lose, and not just because they hated Siota. They owed Marfach their lives and in Harondor that was a debt never to be forgotten. By some strange process, their good will strengthened Marfach. He had to win, not just for the King but also to deliver these people from a harsh tyrant. Marfach spoke his thoughts;
‘Why do you not yield to the King of Gondor?’ he asked. ‘You would keep your lordship, if you would promise to be a just ruler....’
‘Death and darkness on your King!’ hissed Siota. ‘I am going to kill you and all your rag tag band and send your heads back to Minas Tirith in a sack...!’

And with that, enraged further and wishing only to end it, Siota sprang forward, raining blows down on Marfach with such force that his sword was sent spinning from his hand onto the dry ground and he was forced down on one knee before his attacker....

A great shout went up from the Haradrim army. Fior, who had been watching every move of the fight, leaped forward and gave a shout of dismay. He saw Siota circle quickly then dart in and there was a flash of steel and Marfach fell backwards onto the ground; it was over.

A great scream went up from the army. Salanda, standing beside Fior, was saying something to himself and the young Ranger imagined that it was some kind of prayer. Fior went to rush forward but Callanach grabbed his arm to stop him.
‘No’ he breathed.’Wait!’

In the arena Siota was holding up his helmet and sword and shaking them in defiance. His words were drowned out by the howling of the army. Behind him, Marfach lay on the ground and Fior could see a great dark stain spreading on the sand under him. He was not dead but gripping the sword still embedded in his side. Siota shook his fist at his mutinous army then turned to finish Marfach off. There was a terrible twisted smile on his face. Then the smile slipped, because Marfach was smiling back.

Ignoring the sword thrust in his side, Marfach struggled to prop himself up on one elbow. Then with his one hand he undid the buckle that strapped the small shield to his arm. Gripping the heavy brass disc in one hand he let himself fall back on the ground and swung his good arm wide. Then he flung it forward and the targe left his hand and flew through the air and struck the surprised Siota right between the eyes.

The army gave a great shout, and Fior shouted too. Siota staggered backwards several steps then fell flat on the ground, blood pouring from his broken nose. As he lay stunned Marfach sat up, disengaged the sword from his side and rose slowly to his feet.

A deathly hush fell on the army. The whites of their eyes showing in their dark faces, the Haradrim watched Marfach with superstitious terror as he took slow, wavering steps towards the fallen Siota. When he reached him he took a close grip on the scimitar which he still held in his bloodstained hand. Siota was coming round. Dimly, through a haze of blood, he saw Marfach standing over him and he struggled to rise. Before he could even sit up, the scimitar descended in a great swathe, like a sickle reaping wheat. Siota’s head leaped from his shoulders and his torso, spouting blood, thumped back down onto the ground.

The roar of the Haradrim army sounded only dimly in Marfach’s ears. He did not look at Siota. His sight was growing dark and he wished to look his last at his friends. He dropped the bloody sword and turned and just then Liofa reached him and threw his arms round him to hold him up. Callanach was just behind him, and Fior too. Marfach could see tears on the young Ranger’s face and he was aware that Callanach was speaking. He put up his hand as if he would speak, but merely smiled and closed his eyes......

The river was in full spate, its water pounding the banks beyond which rose tall trees. Marfach stood on the edge, feeling the grass wet with spray, and looked around him. As if waiting for a signal, a figure emerged from the shadows of the forest and walked over to where he stood.

Marfach stared at the man’s face; it was familiar...the man smiled and Marfach remembered. It was Boromir. And he knew where he was....
‘You should not be here...’ Marfach said. ‘I gave you my place on a ship into the West, that you might enter the Undying Lands...’
Boromir had reached the spot where Marfach was standing. He was clad in a cloak trimmed with fur and wore a tunic of richly embroidered cloth. His face was fair but pale. He spoke to Marfach
‘I have come back to be your guide’
Marfach frowned. ‘Where will you take me?’ he asked. ‘I cannot go into the West....’
Boromir replied ‘You can go wherever you desire, into the Immortal realm or even, if you wish, you can return to Middle Earth. But if you go back, it must not be as the creature Marfach. That life is over....’
‘Yet I may return to Middle Earth?’ asked Marfach.

Boromir smiled and nodded then turned and walked away towards the forest. Marfach took one last look at the river and the forest beyond then turned and followed him......