The Dragon and the Fox

by Varda


Chapter 19: The Leopard

Despite all her efforts to prevent it, a tear rolled down Dian’s cheek. She quickly wiped it away but another followed. She covered her face with her hand, ashamed to weep in front of Lord Faramir. She had not wept like this before, even for her brother. Faramir said gently;
‘He was your friend, this Altán?’

Dian struggled to control herself and answer. Yes, Altán had been a friend, and dear to her. But no more than her brother Aonta and all the others who had gone off to fight for Gondor and had not come back. Even Faramir’s brother, Boromir, had been lost they said…Dian looked at Faramir and wondered if he was thinking of his own brother….
‘Yes, my lord…Altán was my friend….’ she said; but she was thinking of Marfach.

Who was that strange creature, not orc or man or Elf, and what had become of him? She dared not ask Faramir. But Marfach had traded his life for hers and she could not help but wonder what had happened to him….

Faramir looked at her for some time without speaking. He was seated in his makeshift study in the caves, a lamp flickering on the low table, an iron brazier crackling cheerfully and warming the stone-chilled air. The prince was wearing a padded tunic and a fur-lined cloak and the lamplight shone on his fair hair. Unrolled before him on the camp table were the maps of Ithilien and Gondor which he pored over ceaselessly now. He saw Dian’s clothes were wet and torn, her face pale and bruised. He said in a kindly voice;
‘You are cold and wet, and you have an injured ankle. Take some rest and food, and the leeches will look to your hurt. In the morning….’ Dian’s head went up and she looked at Faramir uneasily;
‘…I am sending dispatches to Minas Tirith. You can go with them, on horseback. You can recover at home…..’

‘No!’

Her voice, far louder than she intended, echoed through the cave. Faramir’s men raised their heads at the sound. Dian bit her lip; it was unheard of to question the lord of Rangers. But the thought of being sent back to Minas Tirith, to rot in the city as war crept closer, almost choked her. She said;
‘Pardon, Lord Faramir….but I was so long in gaining permission to join the Rangers, I could not go back now…’

She mastered her feelings, but felt tears sting her eyes. She knew it was hopeless; this was no place for the wounded, or any who might slow the Rangers down in battle. Faramir said nothing but although his face still had a look of kindliness and concern, she could tell he was preparing to give her the command she dreaded…….

‘My Lord Faramir!’

Faramir looked up impatiently at the interruption. It was Ciall, out of breath and with his dark green cloak dashed with drops of rain. He bowed hastily to Faramir and Dian.
‘Pardon, my lord….’
‘Well’ said Faramir drily. ‘Seeing as you have my attention, go on…’
‘Haradrim!’ Ciall blurted out. ‘A great army of them, passing up the Logán Aiteann…’

The Logán Aiteann was a long trough of low-lying land, sandy and bare, which ran into Ithilien from the desolation further up the slopes of the Mountains of Shadow. Its name meant Gorse Hollow, and it was the route for many of Sauron’s allies on their way to Mordor.

Faramir rose to his feet, the firelight glinting in his grey eyes. For the moment, Dian noticed with relief, he had forgotten her. If this came to a battle, there would be no more talk of sending her home….at the same time Faramir was thinking of the army of the Haradrim, seeing them in his mind’s eye. He was thinking too of Logán Aiteann, the perfect arena for an ambush…
.
‘How many?’ he said in a curiously tense voice.
‘Thousands’ said Ciall breathlessly ‘Perhaps tens of thousands. It is the start of a great incursion from the South….’
‘Nay..’ said Faramir gently, raising a hand. He could see the Rangers
gathered round, and did not want to spark alarm. ‘..there have been many Haradrim passing through Ithilien in the past weeks….’
‘Not like these, Lord Faramir..’ Ciall replied, barely able to suppress his excitement..

‘They even have Oliphaunts…..’

It was the column of dust raised by the line of grey shambling giants that at last told Marfach he had found the army of the Haradrim.

For a night and a day, since leaving Frodo and Sam, he had kept a steady running pace southwards, searching for the tracks of the Haradrim scouts he had seen. At last he found, not tracks, but the signs of a great army of the  southland, moving North towards the Black Gate and Mordor. He threw himself down behind a spreading gorse thicket and gazing out into the spring noontide he could make out a great sea of marching soldiers, wearing black robes bound with brightly coloured sashes and glittering with silver and gold. Gems adorned their headresses and the scabbards of their long thin swords and they carried hooked lances called ladhar and small round black hide bucklers studded with brass. The sun glinted on the tips of their spears like on a shining sea..

Although their true numbers were obscured by the vast cloud of dust raised by their passing, Marfach could tell they were a great host, and at intervals along their line huge grey shapes loomed up, bright in scarlet cloth with gold and black castles on their backs and bristling with archers. These were Oliphaunts, giant creatures of the southlands, captured and trained to fight by men. Their long shining tusks, all four of them, were tipped with sharp brass ends and their trunks, like giant snakes, ceaselessly tested the air for hostile scents….

When Marfach saw the Oliphaunts a thrill of fear shot through him. Only the best-equipped Haradrim armies, bent on total war and not just on raiding, brought with them Oliphaunts. Now was the time for him to fulfil the vow he had made to Aragorn; to join the Haradrim army and betray it to the West. Marfach watched the southron warriors begin to file past in long lines; now was the time for him to pay his debt to Men…

He stood up and walked forward. Almost at once cries went up from the Haradrim ranks, and the southron archers raised their bows. Marfach walked on steadily, not looking to either side but straight ahead. He raised his hands so it could be seen that he was not armed. One arrow whirred past his head, but he saw it coming with the uncanny speed and vision of the Elves, and he bent to the side at the last moment and it carried on past him. The Haradrim, alarmed by the slow steady advance even of one unarmed man, ran forward and shouted at him to halt..

Marfach stopped and bore the scrutiny of the Haradrim and stared back at them in return. These were not the mercenaries he had fought alongside at the Battle of the Ford. They wore plain black robes and the jewels and scarves that decorated the thick material appeared, to Marfach studying them, to be trophies and prizes of slain enemies. Their weapons however were not prizes, and Marfach could see even from a distance the notches and dents of battle.

Above the Haradrim army there flew banners bearing many devices, the Golden Salamander, the Scorpion and the rayed Sun. But one stood out above all; a golden Leopard on a field of azure, stylised and embellished with great savage claws and teeth. And below it The Leopard himself, the greatest captain of Harad, sat idly on his horse surrounded by his generals while his men seized Marfach and began to beat him….

The tall Haradrim chief pulled down the black silk scarf that served as a mask to reveal a weatherbeaten face and a beard streaked with grey. His coal-black eyes glinted fiercely as the warriors hit Marfach with the flat of their swords and spat on him but he made no move to intercede and stop them. He watched calmly as Marfach disappeared under a rain of blows and kicks. The army came to a shuffling halt and the elephants explored the terrain with their trunks but still Síota sat on his horse and stared, savouring the punishment given to Marfach…

For Síota knew very well who this stranger appearing suddenly in their midst was; his red dragon tattoo had marked him out for life, he was Marfach, the Killer, the Accursed one, the creature they could not kill. Well, he would see who could not be killed...

Marfach accepted the first few blows then a red rage came over him and he forgot his task and retaliated, making a fist and smacking it into the nose-guard of one of the tall swarthy soldiers of the south. He felt the bones give beneath his fist and the man fall backwards and this seemed to be the signal for the Haradrim to attack him with even greater ferocity. He tasted blood, and when he at last was pulled down and boots kicked his side he felt a rib crack and began to fade into a dark distance, no longer feeling the blows. As his mind drifted into nothingness he thought of Frodo, and heard his parting word;

‘Cróga…’