The Dragon and the Fox

by Varda

Chapter 11: A Fair Exchange

Marfach drew the Elven blade from its sheath and in one swift movement he stepped up to Faramir and placed the sharp steel against the man’s throat. A gasp of horror went round the Rangers but they remained rooted to the spot as if held by some spell. Despite himself Faramir flinched, and wondered if he had gambled and lost.

Marfach put slight pressure on the sword and the blade, made long ago by the Elven smiths of Lórien and as light and keen as couch-grass, cut Faramir’s skin. He felt nothing, but a bright bead of blood ran down his neck and seemed to awaken the Rangers from their trance and Ciall drew his sword with a curse and started towards his captain. But Faramir gestured to him to halt and he stayed his hand, glaring at Marfach.

Faramir understood or thought he understood what Marfach was trying to do; he was testing him. The thin scarred hand that held the sword had a tattoo on it, a red dragon, and Faramir looked into the green eyes and the pale face, the smile now gone, and thought of all the slaughter he had inflicted on the servants of Sauron, creatures like this. What, wondered Faramir with that strange empathy with all beings that so infuriated his father and so endeared him to everyone else, had these eyes beheld?

Marfach could not long abide that gaze, and looked down, stepping back and taking the sword away from Faramir’s throat. The Rangers gave a sigh of relief but then Marfach put his hand round the sword blade and scored a deep cut on his own palm. Faramir himself flinched, but Marfach held up his hand and showed the prince the line of blood; it was red, just like Faramir’s.

‘See’ said Marfach. ‘I am no orc’

‘There are many men in the service of Sauron…’ replied Faramir.

‘And bound to his dread will they would have slain you without hesitation’ said Marfach, then added ‘…Lord Faramir….’

The Rangers began murmuring angrily; they were under strict orders to keep their leader’s identity secret, to guard against orc assassins. How did Marfach know who he was?

But Faramir looked down instinctively and saw the trailing ribbon of his father’s seal visible where he had hurriedly tucked away Denethor’s letter in his tunic. It was red and bright as blood and Marfach had seen it and guessed what it was. Common Rangers did not get letters from the Steward of Gondor. Faramir smiled grimly.
‘Your eyes are keen’ he said.
‘Even in the dark, Faramir’ replied Marfach.

Faramir looked away then and pondered for a moment. Every hour he delayed his return to Minas Tirith increased his father’s anger against him. Nor would Denethor regard the rescue of two lost Rangers sufficient reason for him to tarry in Ithilien. But it was not in Faramir’s nature to leave any of his men to die if there was even a slight chance he could save them. And he hesitated to leave Marfach in the Rangers' charge. He could see they hated and feared him, and would soon find some reason to slay him. If he found the two Rangers they might vindicate Marfach’s story and he could let him go with a clear mind….

‘Show us where you last saw these two Rangers…..’

Dian looked out across the water in horror. The river was swollen by the spring rains in the North, muddy and strewn with branches and leaves. Even the howls of the orcs pursuing them seemed less terrifying than this angry, dangerous water.

Marfach gripped her arm.
‘You have come this far, do not falter now, Ranger!’ he hissed in her ear, and without waiting for an answer he undid his cloak and threw it away, picked up Altán, still unconscious, and strode out into the reed bed and on out into the river. The icy water brought Altán to his senses and he tried to push Marfach away. Dian hesitated for a moment, then looking round she saw the black horde of orcs bounding towards them through the shallows and she threw off her cloak and her bow and quiver and dived in after Marfach..

The icy water drove the breath out of her, and at the same moment an arrow fell with a faint splash into the river by her outstretched hand. Marfach had an arm round Altán and was swimming strongly towards the racing water in the centre of the river. Long trailing threads of mist obscured the far bank, but now a hail of arrows was falling all around them. Dian felt horribly vulnerable, seeming to be unmoving in the water no matter how hard she swam. She wanted to reach Marfach and help him hold Altán up but her arms and legs were numbed by the cold and it was all she could do to keep her chin above the waves. An arrow flew past her head and instinctively she turned and looked back and saw the orcs ranged all along the river firing at them.

Dian had never seen orcs before, and despite herself she stared at their lean crouching shapes and long grey limbs encased in black armour marked clearly, even from this distance, with a great red eye. They were putting arrows to their bows and taking aim, but one taller than the others stood out alone gazing at them, and from time to time glancing back at the trees, as if watching for pursuers of their own. Then a wave slapped over Dian’s head and she fought to get her breath and swim on as the water grew rougher in the middle of the stream.

Ahead of her Marfach bore Altán up but the waves began to wash over them.
Altán was kept awake by the icy water. Twice he went under and came up choking. Marfach struggled to keep him above water but weak and half drowned
Altán at last said;
‘Let me go! Save yourself…’
‘No!’ said Marfach fiercely, but just then a wave of dark flood water washed over them both…

Dian had lost sight of Altán and Marfch; she was turned round by the current, unseen hands clutching at her legs and arms. She swam hard but a great weight of water pushed against her and she was borne further out into the stream. Then the broken trunk of a mighty tree loomed up and before she could swim out of the way it rammed into her, driving the breath out of her and bearing her under the waves…

It was late afternoon. The dull day had given way to weak sunshine and the light was slanting through the willows beside the river and glinting on the fast-flowing water. Dian looked up. She was lying in the shallows on a sandy spit of riverbank half in the freezing water and half on the wet sand. She was cold, colder than she had ever been in her life. Her whole body seemed to be made of ice and would not obey her when she tried to stand up. She had to crawl out of the water, digging her fingers into the sand to pull herself along. When she was free of the river she lay for a moment exhausted on the dry land, gripping handfuls of sand as if to reassure herself she was really safe. She closed her eyes, wishing she could rest there forever, but instead she made an attempt to get to her feet. As she did so she raised her eyes to where the shore met the trees and saw standing there a line of orcs, bearing scimitars and watching her in silence.

With a curse Dian turned and made a lunge for her sword, still strapped to her side. She grasped the handle with her cold stiff hand but before she could pull the blade out the orcs had bounded forward with a wild yell and fallen upon her…

After an hour of searching one of Faramir’s Rangers gave a cry and they all gathered round a trampled patch of river mud. There, in the midst of orc tracks, lay a sword…
One of the Rangers picked it up and examined it.
‘It is a Scorpion!’ he exclaimed. Faramir nodded and thought;
‘So that much of his story is true; the sword belonged to Dian….’
Ciall was looking out across the river. He said sadly;
‘They must have cast off their swords to swim more easily. But they were lost anyway…’
‘No’ said Marfach flatly. The Rangers all looked at him, loathing him but anxious to hear what he had to say. He pointed to the Scorpion and said.
‘Examine the sword more closely….’

Then they noticed that wound about the hilt of the Scorpion was a long thin strip of black cloth, knotted and tangled. Ciall gasped and almost dropped the weapon; it was orc clothing….
‘The woman is alive’ said Marfach. Faramir stared at him in bewilderment and asked;
‘How do you know?’ Marfach looked away and said;
‘That is a message. The Ranger did not cast off her sword, it was put there by the orcs. They have captured her, perhaps both of them. They want to exchange her…’

A murmur of dismay went up from the Rangers. Faramir held up his hand for silence and said to Marfach in disbelief;
‘Exchange her for what? We have no orc prisoners. What do they want? My Rangers? Me?’

A thin smile twisted Marfach’s face.
‘They don’t want you, Faramir’ he said quietly ‘They want me.’