The Dragon and the Fox

by Varda

Chapter 17: Lord of the Flies

Sam and Frodo sprang up and grabbed their packs, but Marfach stopped them.
‘Wait!’ he said. ‘Do not run on blindly into danger. This is open country, if these are indeed orcs they will soon see you and catch you. Stay in this wood. They don’t know you are here and might just go past without stopping to search it….’

The hobbits looked uncertainly at each other, not yet wholly trusting Marfach. He turned to Gollum and said sternly;
‘Let me see these orcs…..’

Gollum looked annoyed at being doubted but Marfach walked towards him and he shrank before the tall gaunt figure with the pale face and fierce eyes. He turned and scuttled off and Marfach, no stranger to hiding and hunting, followed stealthily.

Gollum led Marfach along a dry stream bed. The winter had been so arid the water was only a trickle over stones at the bottom and the slopes of the watercourse were clothed with thorns. They dropped down onto their hands and knees to crawl up to the lip of the ravine and peered cautiously over.

The sun by now was high overhead, and in the strong light Marfach saw two figures in dusty black loping across the bare plain, looking cautiously about as they ran.
‘They are no orcs..’ murmured Marfach to himself. ‘They are Haradrim…’

They were Southron scouts, clad in long black and red robes and with their faces covered with masks. Over their shoulders they carried their short wickedly curved black bows and at their sides long scorpion blades. Gold glinted on their belts and headscarves and the scabbards of their swords. Of their faces only their dark eyes could be seen in a slit in their masks. They ran swiftly, only looking from side to side as a caution; they had not seen Marfach or Gollum or the hobbits.

Marfach crept back down the slope, followed by Gollum, sweating in the bright sun.
‘Haradrim scouts…’ said Marfach to himself. ‘But why are they going to Ithilien…?’
Gollum said defensively;
‘Looked like orcses, they did! Sméagol doesn’t know the difference, not when the bright face shines…..’ and he squinted up at the sun.

Marfach studied Gollum for some moments. He knew a creature in thrall to the power of the Dark when he saw one, having been one himself. But there was something not totally evil about Gollum. And the two hobbits, who had no evil in them, trusted him. Still, he made Marfach uneasy.
‘It doesn’t matter what they are.’ he said to Gollum. ‘As long as they are not following us.’ And he led Gollum back to where Sam and Frodo were in hiding.

‘Be easy’ he said to them. ‘They are not orcs, but scouts from the South, making their way into Ithilien. But…’ and he looked out towards the distant Anduin before continuing; ‘..this is the way all the creatures of Mordor take to the Black Gates and the land beyond, so you must not stay here but hurry on your way, whatever that might be…’
He saw that the hobbits did not wish to tell him where they were going.
‘There is a road that runs from the Morannen, built long ago by the men of Gondor. I can bring you that far, and then you can go whichever way you want….’

There was a moment’s silence, then Frodo said;
‘Very well, I would be glad of your woodcraft, even though you have no sword to guard us with’
Marfach smiled ruefully, then Frodo added.
‘It is better to wait for nightfall, as the land is so open, and our companion….’ And he indicated Gollum ‘..cannot travel well in sunlight.’
Marfach did not think a delay was wise, but nodded agreement. They rose and went deeper into the pine copse. It was dark and cool and full of the fragrance of sun-warmed pines. They sat down and passed their waterflask to Marfach. As he drank Frodo suddenly asked;
‘You have told us your name, Marfach, but not who or what you are…..’

Marfach sat in silence for some time, remembering…

When he awoke at last there was no sight or sound of battle, no fire or smoke. His last memories were of falling, a horrible sensation of the black burning ground rushing up to meet him and the screaming of Sauron’s ghastly winged beasts in his ears. Then only darkness.

But when he woke he was in a high, dim room with bright, burning rays of sunshine falling through gaps in the window shutters and the sound of sparrows scolding outside.

He sat up cautiously; his injuries had healed, and he raised a hand and stared at it in wonder; every bone must have been crushed by the fall, yet now he was whole.

He felt strange; something was not quite right….but before he could think about it the shutters were thrown open and in from a bright courtyard strode Deis and Tuar, the friends he had lost to the orcs, as he thought…

‘Still sleeping, Cróga?’ said Deis, ‘We have all been waiting for you to wake up…’
The sun dazzled Cróga but he strained to see the faces of his friends, the Elves of the Company of Melian whom he had never thought to see again. Behind Deis and Tuar came Duairc and Súgach, and they stood round his couch, laughing at him.

Brushing tears of joy from his eyes Cróga got to his feet. He swayed and the Elves caught him and steadied him with laughs and jests. Growing accustomed to the light he gazed at his friends and saw they were clad in fresh clothes, tunics of blue belted with silver and cloaks of dark green. Still hardly able to believe such a happy ending to such a deadly battle Cróga looked closely at Deis who stood near him. The Elf’s face was fair and cheerful, his shining dark hair bound with a silver circlet and his dark grey eyes clear and bright. Cróga felt a surge of joy; it was no dream, his friends had been delivered from danger….

‘Come’ said Deis. ‘take some food…’ and he handed a sword and scabbard to Cróga, who wondered why he was offered arms. But he buckled the weapon on and followed his friends out onto a terrace overhung with vines. Green wooded slopes fell away in the sunlight to a lake surrounded by flowering trees. The sight lifted Cróga’s heart although he could not think what this place was…but the Elves gave him no chance to question them but led him across the terrace to a long table set with a feast. He sat down and Deis poured a goblet of wine, and raised it to him…

The Elf began to make a speech to celebrate their recovery, but Cróga’s attention wandered. A fly buzzed over the table and he fixed his eyes on it, and its drone filled his ears. It was a blow-fly, and its angry hum and blue-black glint was out of place in the beauty and calm of this place. But the other Elves seemed not to see it…suddenly another joined it, and after flying round the table one lighted on the food. Cróga wanted to brush it away, but once again the other Elves seemed not to notice. Then a sudden breeze brought a waft of dreadful stench to Cróga’s senses. It was a smell he knew from the war; the rotting dead.

Alarmed now, Cróga went to speak to Deis, but his eye fell on the lake beyond the terrace. Dim in the bright sunlight he saw bodies floating in the water. That was where the smell came from…

Cróga leaped up and turned to Deis, but his words died on his lips. He saw now that the Elf’s face was yellow and the skin stretched taut across the skull. But worst of all was a great gash torn in Deis’s throat. The blood on it was dried, and at last Cróga understood; Deis was dead.

He looked wildly round at the other Elves; they were all hollow-eyed and sunken-cheeked. Their blue tunics hung on empty rib cages. Cróga drew his sword in a panic, and saw it was a black blade of Mordor, inset with beads of red enamel like drops of blood. Behind the blue sky he heard laughter….

Enraged, Cróga seized Deis. His hand gripped empty clothes. He saw movement under the blue silk tunic and tore it away. Where the heart should have been was only a great black mass of insects, seething and stinging….

With a yell of horror Cróga took hold of the sword with both hands and thrust it into Deis’s chest. He staggered forward as the blade plunged into rottenness then into nothing. A great horde of black flies surrounded him and blinded him but he fought on, hacking and stabbing, until he had felled all the Elves, beheading the last one, Súgach, named for his bright and cheerful spirit.

He stepped back, weeping. For many minutes he could not look upon what he had done, but when he at last forced himself he lowered the sword in astonishment….

On the marble floor of the terrace lay his four friends, not skeletal corpses but as they had been in life, before he had slain them.

He dropped to his knees beside Deis and took his hand. It was still warm. The blue silk tunic was stained with blood where Cróga had plunged his sword into his chest. Weeping, Cróga bent over and kissed his friend on his forehead. He heard again a distant laughter, like dry bones rattling down a rocky slope…

Brushing away his tears he got to his feet and taking the hilt of the sword he placed the sharp tip against his ribs. He took a deep breath, said a silent prayer to Melian and drew down all his resolve and strength….

‘But I could not do it’ Marfach said to Frodo.’ I wanted to live, and I still do….I reckoned without the power of hope….’

Marfach stopped speaking. In the silence that followed they could hear the wind in the pines above them and the fitful snoring of Gollum, sleeping in the shade. Sam regarded Marfach with horror, but in Frodo’s face there was only pity…

‘You killed all your friends….’ He said in a low voice. Marfach nodded.
‘All the Company of Melian who did not perish in the battle I slew.’ He looked at Frodo and went on;. ‘I freed them from Sauron, but I could not free myself. They could seek the eternal home of the elves, but I cannot ever go there. I am doomed to remain in Middle Earth for a lonely eternity, unless I am slain….’

He said no more. After a long pause Frodo asked;
‘Are you real, Marfach, or just an evil dream?’

Marfach looked at the hobbit and saw he had instinctively placed his hand on his chest as if protecting something he wore round his neck. In the greenish light of the pine grove his skin was translucent and the fine tracery of veins and even the bones, light as a bird’s, could be seen…. Marfach replied;

‘I am as real as you are, Frodo….’