The Dragon and the Fox

by Varda

Chapter 5: The King of Hope

King Théoden had withdrawn with his guards to the dyke above Isengard and Gandalf had gone in search of Treebeard. Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas found themselves alone in the barren wasteland of Saruman's ruined kingdom. Tired after the long ride from Helm's Deep they dismounted to stretch their legs and let their horses rest and graze on the sparse pasture of Isengard.

Gimli threw himself down muttering darkly about horses, "Dragons would bestow less torture on my limbs!"

Aragorn pulled a clump of thin grass and let Brego eat it from his hand. The myriad cuts and bruises of battle had now begun to smart and his hands were swollen and bloody. He longed for rest but knew they must return to Edoras soon. His thoughts went to Rivendell, and for a time he did not think about the battle just fought, or the fair day spreading over the ruins of Isengard...

Beside him Legolas stood looking all around at the Wizard's domain. Great gashes in the earth showed the entrance to the mills and foundries where Saruman had created his man-creatures and tormented beasts. A chill ran through the Elf's body; he wished he were far away from this place. The evil that an Istari of great wisdom such as Saruman had wrought here cast a shadow on his spirit. Arod whinnied softly and dropped his nose into the Elf's hand and Legolas stroked him gently. The horse seemed nervous, and Legolas instinctively looked about to see what had unsettled him. His keen Elf-gaze fell on three figures still far away but approaching swiftly....

Aragorn threw himself down on the ground and let his thoughts drift. Gimli was talking to himself beside him but he did not listen. Then something came between him and the sun and he looked up. It was Legolas, standing straight and alert, the bow he had just drawn in his hand, an arrow ready to shoot.

Aragorn leaped to his feet. "What is it, Legolas?" he asked.

"Something evil," the Elf replied, his grey eyes flashing.

Aragorn followed his gaze and saw two Ents approaching. With them was a warrior, and Aragorn too put his hand on the hilts of his sword when he saw him: tall, lean and stern, yet not a warrior of the Rohirrim or of Gondor. Aragorn stood on his guard and Gimli stopped grumbling and quietly got to his feet, drawing his axe out of his belt.

Ashwing and Elmfoot strode up to Aragorn and made such obeisance as their tall rigid trunks would allow. Their leafy crowns waved in the breeze.

Ashwing spoke, "My lord Aragorn, we were commanded by King Théoden to deliver to you this prisoner, for judgement. The King says he is sure you will not forget the wrong he has done to Rohan, but he himself cannot pronounce the wretch's doom lest he should be accused of seeking vengeance on defeated enemies." And the Ent bowed again and fell silent, humming to himself as he shifted from one great rootlike foot to the other.

Aragorn stared in astonishment at Marfach, who stood looking at him calmly, his cloak thrown back to show that he was armed. Aragorn took in the Elven sword and the keen, bright grey eyes, but also the red braids and the dragon tattoo on his right hand and the ancient hauberk of a warrior Dunlending clan. He turned to Legolas and asked, "What is this, Legolas?"

The Elf's face was pale with anger and loathing. "Mallaithe!" he hissed. "Accursed!"

Burned into Legolas's memory was the sight of Haldir at Helm's deep, pale and still, and his Elves dead among the foul carrion of the slain Uruk-hai. Rage such as he had never known overcame him and he drew back his bow. A hand gripped his arm and forced it down.

"Legolas! Do not shoot! He is a prisoner, whatever he has done."

Legolas lowered his bow and stood pale and shaking, glaring at Marfach.

Aragorn said to him, "Who is this?"

But before Legolas could answer Marfach spoke, "My lord Aragorn, I am Marfach, once known as Cróga, and I am an Elf. Long ago I was captured in battle by the dark Lord Sauron and he wrought me to his will. I have been freed from him, as far as anything can be freed from that darkness, and now I surrender to you, the King, for judgment of everything I did while in his service." And Marfach kneeled before Aragorn and laid Mianach his sword, still in its sheath, on the ground before him.

Aragorn stared at Marfach in astonishment. Gimli shook his head and uttered some dwarvish spell to ward off evil. Legolas, bow still drawn, cried, "It is a trick! He is lying to save himself. He is mallaithe, faoin gintlíocht, possessed, cursed. All he says is treachery!"

Marfach listened without showing any emotion, then said drily, "You, I guess, must be Prince Legolas son of Thrandúil, who fights alongside Aragorn." He bowed his head and went on. "I surrendered to the King of the West. If it is his will, draw your bow, Legolas, and shoot."

There was a silence. Legolas had his arrow still set to the bowstring, his face angry. Then Aragorn stepped in front of him and laid his hand on the Elf's arm. "Put your bow away, Legolas," he said quietly. He turned to Marfach and said, "There will be no killing of Elves under my command, now or at any time in this land."

Legolas slackened the bowstring and stood back, but his eyes still burned with hatred. Aragorn said to Marfach, "I am not king. I do not rule here, but King Théoden. I see however that he does not wish to judge you, so it falls to me." He gestured to Marfach to rise and said, "Why do you offer me your sword?"

"I have sworn no longer to wage war on the West," replied Marfach. "Perhaps I could fight against the darkness that once enslaved me, and so pay my debt...."

There was a silence. Aragorn studied the tall figure and thin pale face. He sought for truth in the words Marfach spoke, but it was as if a veil was between him and the Elf. At length he said, "I cannot take you into my service, for I ride soon to Gondor with Théoden and the Rohirrim, and they will in no way permit you to fight with them. Nor can I let you go free, for that would dishonour Théoden and Rohan." Aragorn smiled sadly and asked, "What would you have me do with you?"

There was a silence, then Marfach looked into Aragorn's eyes and said, "Let me go, and I will follow the Haradrim south. I have fought with them before and they will allow me into their ranks. Then I will seek an opportunity to betray them to the men of Gondor."

"A nice little plan!" exclaimed Gimli. "We let you go, and you run back to your old friends and continue to wreak havoc on our allies! I wonder why you survived to serve Sauron, when so many Elves died rather than submit. Maybe you had some taste for the work...?"

Marfach looked at the dwarf and his eyes were dark with anger. Legolas turned to Aragorn and said, "This is only to give an enemy safe passage to Ithilien!"

But Aragorn said nothing. He studied Marfach for some time then spoke, "If I let you go and you reach the Haradrim, they might discover you and slay you. If they don't, the men of Gondor will slay you. If the West falls and your old master Sauron wins, you will be lost among enemies. Every way, you will not survive."

"Survival is not my aim," said Marfach.

"What is?" asked Legolas.

"I want...," he replied, turning to the Elf, "... to regain something I have lost."

"And what might that be?" asked Gimli.

"My honour," said Marfach.

Aragorn looked thoughtful. He said, "If you are false in this, and the West is defeated, you will gain a great reward from Sauron."

Marfach's face was pale. He bowed his head and said, "If the West falls, and you perish, I will perish too. I will not outlive your hope, Elessar."

At that Aragorn nodded and reaching down he took up Mianach and held it out to Marfach. "Very well, I set you free, on condition you attempt this quest. And whether or not it is permitted, I give you my blessing...."

Elves do not tire in the same way as mortals, and a day and a night later Marfach reached the top of a low ridge and gazed at last on Anórien. Behind him stretched the wolds of Rohan, strangely empty of both friend and foe. The hosts of Saruman had been swept away to perish where they might and all the Rohirrim had been called to the Muster of Rohan, and from there to Minas Tirith for the last great battle in defence of the city. A wind from the south brought the sweet smell of Ithilien and Marfach raised his head and drew in a long breath. He smiled a grim smile and a feeling of savage joy came over him.

He was free.