The Dragon and the Fox

by Varda

Chapter 24: The Champions of Middle Earth

Sam struggled in the grip of the tall green-clad Ranger, who when they had
gained the safety of a glade far from the scene of the ambush of the
Haradrim, released the hobbit and standing back removed his own mask.

The Ranger carrying Frodo released him too, and Sam looked anxiously to see
if his master was unhurt. He said to the Ranger;
'There was no call to lay hold of us like that! Just let us go and we will
be on our way....'

'Let you go?' said the Ranger in astonishment, as he gazed bewildered on Sam
and Frodo, for he had never seen a hobbit before.
'You must wait till Captain Faramir says what is to be done with you...' he
said. Sam straightened his Elvish cloak and demanded;
'Who is this Captain Faramir?'

'Faramir' said the second Ranger 'is the son of the Steward and the Champion
of Gondor......'

Marfach and Salanda rode up to the head of the Haradrim army and with them
went those captains of the rearguard who had survived the ambush. The army
had halted, troops of black-clad foot soldiers and ranks of mounted spearmen
taking the chance to rest in the noonday sunshine. They squatted on the
ground, drank from leathern flasks and lit long black pipes. Some stood up
to watch Marfach gallop past, but others seized the opportunity to doze or
eat or gossip.

The Haradrim standards were planted in the sandy ground; boar skulls with
tusks painted black and red, curved auroch’s horns tipped with gold and
trailing black horsetails, twisting impala horns and cross-trees with
leopardskins all denoting the Haradrim clans, contending fiercely with each
other for supremacy in war…

At last Marfach pulled his half-starved bay up and dismounted before Síota.
He could see the Haradrim commander was furious; under his olive skin he was
pale and his mouth twitched with anger as Marfach approached and ducked a
peremptory bow.
‘You sent for me, Síota?’ he asked, coolly eyeing the Haradrim leader.
‘What happened?’ cried Síota, unable to keep the anger out of his voice. All
the Southron chieftains were standing nearby or sitting on their horses,
listening. Marfach shrugged and replied;
‘It was an ambush….’
‘And just where were you when it happened?’ demanded Síota.
‘Scouting ahead….’ said Marfach. Síota cackled with sarcastic laughter.
‘A fine scout you are too, missing a hundred Rangers under your nose.’ He
stepped up close to Marfach and snarled;
‘I see you are unharmed. It is strange how you never get hurt….’

Marfach did not answer. He looked round; all the Haradrim commanders were
listening. The sun was high in a clear sky, but before it set three more
times they would stand outside the Black Gates of Mordor. Into that terrible
land the army must go, and Marfach with them. He felt cold despite the
sunshine; he would never escape Sauron once he entered Mordor. He would be
consumed, like a single pine tree in a forest fire, punished both for what
he had done and what he had not done.

This was his last chance to escape…..speaking in their own Southron tongue
he suddenly shouted to the Haradrim;

‘That ambush was but a taste of what the armies of Gondor will soon inflict
on you…’

There was a gasp of surprise among the chieftains and Síota sat up straight
on his horse as if struck by a bolt of lightning. Behind him Marfach heard
Salanda mutter a curse under his breath. Not giving anyone a chance to stop
him Marfach went on;

‘Sauron has promised you land and gold, but the Lord of Mordor does not
always pay what he promises.’ The Haradrim were listening in tense silence.
Marfach continued;
‘Remember this; once you enter the Black Gates, you will not come out again
free men, only the slaves of the Dark Lord, who will spend your blood to buy
the earth for himself...…’
‘Enough lies!’ shouted Síota, spurring forward to where Marfach stood in the
midst of the generals.
‘Shut your mouth!’

Marfach stepped back to avoid the hooves of Síota’s warhorse then seized the
reins and shouted at the Leopard;
‘If I am wrong and you are right, prove it in combat! I challenge you to
fight me…’

For some reason Salanda bowed his head and groaned. Marfach heard the sound
in the awful silence that fell when he said these words. A low murmur went
round the troops and the chieftains. Síota looked at Marfach in astonishment
then threw his head back and laughed. Marfach watched him uneasily,
beginning to feel he had made some terrible mistake…

‘You have been away from Harad too long, Marfach!’ said Síota almost
‘You do not know…..’ and he broke down and began to laugh helplessly.
Marfach asked in an icy voice;
‘Know what?’

Another Haradrim chieftain, called An Seacál, The Jackal, on account of his
clan’s rapacity in stripping bare of goods and gold any land they entered,
turned to Marfach and said;
‘The Clan of the Leopard does not permit their chieftain to hazard his
person in single combat. He has a champion, and if you want to prove the
truth of your words by trial of arms, you must fight his champion.’

Marfach’s heart sank. Síota had ceased to laugh, but grinning broadly he
swept his arm out to his right and said;
‘Behold my champion, An Gréad….’

His name meant The Hammer, and with a doomed feeling Marfach looked round at
the man who urged his horse forward and dismounted in front of him.

Marfach was tall, over six feet in height, but he had to look up into the
face of Síota’s champion. An Gréad dwarfed the horse he rode, making it look
like a mountain pony. Síota's champion was not one of the Haradrim; his bare
heavily-muscled arms and shaven, tattooed skull were grey-yellow and gleamed
in the sunshine and Marfach realised this was one of the strange half-goblin
creatures that Sauron had sent to strengthen the ranks, and perhaps the
will, of his Southern allies. Apart from a leather shoulder-guard studded
with brass he wore only a wolfskin kilt and a pectoral of human bones. He
bowed and smiled, revealing two rows of great tusks filed to sharp points.

‘Oh no…’ thought Marfach.