The Dragon and the Fox

by Varda


Chapter 21: The Devil’s Playground

“..our scouts have observed a large force of Haradrim marching towards the
Gates of Mordor. It is without question the greatest army of the South ever
to enter Ithilien and it is my view that we must hinder them here or fight
them later on when they will be supported by all the power of Mordor….”

Slowly Denethor laid down the letter on the long council table and gazed
towards the high window of the council chamber of the White Tower. It looked
towards the East and was filled with a red glow. Denethor’s hand shook, not
with age but with fury. The councillors, silver-haired ministers of Minas
Tirith, merchants charged with supplying the embattled city and old soldiers
pressed into service in the night watch, all stared at the Steward but dared
not speak. Denethor raised the letter and continued to read;
“..I beg your leave then, Father, to remain yet a while in Ithilien until I
have dealt with this threat to our land…..”

‘He defies me!’ shouted Denethor, flinging the letter down and standing up.
‘I ordered him to return to the city and he disobeys me! I had a son who
would not have done this….’
Denethor’s voice trailed off, and the council sat in painful silence,
thinking of Boromir. The captain of the city watch, Cruach, ventured to
speak;
‘Faramir is only doing what he thinks best, trying to keep the enemy away
from the city….’
‘Do not teach me the art of war!’ shrieked Denethor. ‘Faramir has disobeyed
me, and not for the first time. Oh I know…’ and he looked scornfully round
at the councillors ‘..how much he is loved in the city. But he is an
insubordinate captain and a coward….’

Into the dimly lit cave all Faramir’s chieftains and scouts had crowded,
along with many of his Rangers. In the wavering candlelight their faces,
gaunt and weatherbeaten from many months of hiding and fighting in the woods
of Ithilien, looked anxious. They knew a great army of Haradrim was bearing
down upon them…Faramir stood up and walked forward into their midst and
looked round. He knew every man there, and many were his friends as well as
his Rangers. He too was worn and weatherbeaten from long days in the field,
but tonight his face was stern, and he had put aside his sword and armour
and stood wearing only a plain black woollen tunic, embroidered with
silver….

‘Tomorrow we will attack the army of the Haradrim..’ he said in a loud clear
voice.
At once a surprised murmur went round the men; the Haradrim! The scouts said
their army had taken an hour to pass as they watched it from cover. Faramir
nodded grimly and went on;
‘I know their force is great, and we are few. Yet we have the advantage of
surprise, and stealth…’ the murmuring had stopped and the men were listening
intently.
‘I would not lead you on a hopeless endeavour, and I know this is the
greatest enemy host ever to invade Ithilien…’ Faramir looked round at the
faces and said quietly;
‘..many of you were born in Ithilien, but nothing good lives there any more
and your homes and farms are swept away. This fair land is an abode of orcs
and wolves and now the mercenaries of the south. The Lord of Mordor has made
it a devil’s playground…’ there was an angry murmur of agreement.
‘Before we are recalled to Minas Tirith and leave it forever let us strike
one last blow for Ithilien!’

‘Yes!’ shouted one man, then another, and they all took up the cry.
‘For Ithilien! Ithilien!’


‘How did you become a slave?’ Marfach asked Salanda.

They had slowed down and were walking along a dried up stream bed that ran
alongside the Anduin, with the vanguard of the Haradrim army almost out of
sight ahead. It was midmorning and even in late winter the sun was warm, and
Salanda, walking and running at Marfach’s stirrup, was covered with dust and
streaked with sweat. He looked up in surprise, but he saw Marfach was
looking down at him with curiosity and something akin to kindness… he
answered gruffly;
‘It was at the Battle of the Fords of Isen, where you somehow escaped…’ he
glanced up but Marfach gave no sign of explaining how he had got away.
Salanda continued;

‘A Prince of the royal house of Rohan was slain in the fighting, and in
revenge their warriors overran our camp, slew everyone they found and took
all our horses. My mount was killed in the battle, and I would have perished
at the hands of the Rohirrim had I not been given a horse by the Leopard
Clan. But the payment for deliverance was my freedom….’

Salanda said no more, but walked on with his eyes on the ground and his head
down. A gap had opened up between the vanguard of the army and the
rearguard. Marfach slowed the pace of his white charger and asked;
‘What has tempted so many of you this far North?’ Salanda looked up and a
wide mirthless grin spread over his face;
‘Gold! Plunder, and land..’
‘Land?’ said Marfach in surprise.
‘Aye, land.’ Replied Salanda. ‘Ithilien! Sauron has promised it to us if we
aid him in his war, to have for ever and ever….’
Some of the Haradrim warriors trudging along beside them heard Salanda’s
words and raised a cheer. Salanda added;
‘We can defeat our ancient enemy Gondor and gain Ithilien all at once….’
Marfach pondered this in silence for a while, then said in a low voice;
‘Sauron often does not keep his promises….’ Salanda looked up and Marfach
added harshly;
‘And you will still be a slave’
A fierce look crossed Salanda’s face for a moment but he said nothing. Then
he raised his arm and cried;
‘Behold the army of the South….’

And there it was, stretching alongside the sandy banks of the Anduin as far
as the eye could see, a giant serpent gleaming in the sun, armour and
speartips glinting and the great shambling outlines of the Oliphaunts barely
visible in the dust raised by so many thousands.
‘Do you see it?’ asked Salanda triumphantly.
‘I see it.’ Answered Marfach, but what he saw was not the great numbers of
the host, but the great gap, at least half an hour’s ride, that had opened
up between the head of the army and the straggling rearguard. His eye roved
across the broken hinterland of evergreen thickets and impenetrable groves
of conifers. Drawing a deep breath he stopped his horse and dismounting he
handed the reins to Salanda.

‘Ride up to the leaders, tell them to slow down or lose half their army…’
Salanda stared at Marfach in surprise, then seized the reins eagerly and
swung himself up into the saddle. Marfach looked up at him and said in a low
voice;
‘And when you reach the vanguard, stay there and do not return…’
Salanda’s eyes widened and he gasped. Then, quickly understanding, he looked
about at the dark green woods and asked;
‘What is out there?’
‘Death and darkness’ said Marfach simply.

By now Salanda’s eyes were showing fear but also exhilaration. He said;
‘Síota will reward me well for this information! Farewell Marfach…!’

And Salanda spurred the white horse away up the valley. He had not gone far
before he pulled up so suddenly that the horse was thrown on its haunches.
He turned its head and galloped back to where Marfach stood unmoving as the
army tramped past. Salanda leaped from the saddle and walked up to Marfach
and said;
‘What are you?’
‘I am an Elf’ said Marfach, too low for any but Salanda to hear.
‘Síota would pay for this news with gold!’ the man of Harad exclaimed.
Marfach smiled. Salanda had never seen Marfach smile. It began deep in his
grey eyes and spread over his gaunt face like sun across snow. He said;
‘Then go and claim your gold’

Salanda looked furious; he hissed;
‘Why do you not fight with the Elves then, or with the Men of Gondor?’
Marfach's smile faded.
‘My people have cast me out’

Salanda began to laugh, but too high and too loudly. At last, seeing the
looks they were getting from the passing Haradrim, he said in genuine
bewilderment;
‘Why are you doing this, Marfach?’

‘Once’ replied Marfach ‘You gave me a horse, that carried me to freedom. Now
I give you a horse to buy yours. No-one should live or die in slavery….’

Salanda stared long at Marfach and said;
‘Those Elves who cast you out….they are fools.’ Then he turned and mounted
the white horse and urged it on down the column of marching Haradrim and was
soon lost to view in a haze of dust.