The Dragon and the Fox

by Varda

Chapter 52: The Coming Of The King

At Pelargir the river Anduin met the Sirith and spread out into a wide, calm lagoon. From time unremembered the people of Gondor had anchored their ships here, in the lee of the hills of Tarnost. Away to the East stretched the green valleys of South Ithilien, land of the Moon, now overrun by the forces of darkness.

Behind the harbourage had once stood a great city, narrow streets all converging on its quays, men of the Southlands rubbing shoulders with Northerners in her markets, every kind of merchandise to be seen and every language to be heard. Now the dawn sky was veiled by clouds of smoke as Pelargir and its harbour burned. Away on the river anchorage her fleet too burned, great merchant vessels and small fishing boats all blazing, floating infernos reflected in the glassy waters of her harbour….

Waiting out of reach of the fireships was another fleet. Long curved prows and black sails gave warning of corsair ships, their decks manned by mercenaries of every land but mostly Harad, all sworn to obey Mordor, their sides bristling with pikes and spears and vast tuns of oil to spill fire upon their enemies in battle at sea. Darting among these waterborne giants were smaller craft, swift dhows with graceful red sails but bearing warriors of the Haradrim, crowding their decks with bows in hand, ready to rain fiery arrows on any who opposed their progress up the Anduin to Minas Tirith….

Dawn came sullenly, reaching slowly to the Western shore. There was no wind, and the corsair captains gave orders to their slavemasters to run out the oars and make way upriver by rowing. The hatches were rolled back and the grey smoky light fell into the holds where captives taken from the Southern towns of Gondor sat in darkness at their oars, starving and without hope.
‘Row, Northern dogs, or we will throw you overboard in chains!’ shouted the masters, and moving between the banks of oars they laid on the lash to wake up the rowers, while a slavemaster kept time on a great black drum in the midships of the vessel.

Slowly at first, then gaining speed the black ships skirted the blazing fleet and moved into the current, heading Northwards. Driven by the straining muscles and sinews of the slaves the great ships, their prows fashioned in the likenesses of fierce sea monsters, drew upriver past the mouth of the Sirith and along the hilly banks of the Anduin. The light grew. The shores, bare at first, were suddenly revealed to be covered with rank upon rank of armed men.

The lookout on the lead ship rubbed his eyes and shaded them with a tattooed hand. Then he gasped; he must be dreaming, but no nightmare could match the horror of what he saw…

‘On the shore….!’ Was all the cry he could manage, but it was so shrill with terror that the whole ragged, ruthless crew stopped their war preparations and stared up at him, then across the water to land….

The wind got up, and lifted the smoke cloud. Suddenly it cleared altogether and there, upon the shore, in full view of the fleet of Corsairs and Haradrim, stood the Army of the Dead.

The crews rushed to the rails with a one long cry of dismay; as far as they could see, unmoving as if made of stone, were warriors from whom life had long departed. Their faces were skulls, lit by the green glow of putrefaction, their weapons rusty, their armour tarnished and their garments rotten and grey. But they turned their empty eye sockets towards the ships and with one great exhalation of icy breath they began to drift across the water in the direction of the corsairs…

At once panic broke out. The corsairs ran screaming to escape, some jumping into the water, others striving to turn the ships to avoid the ghostly army but only succeeding in ramming the ships sailing beside them. Below decks the slaves, peering out at the shore through the oar ports, were struck with terror as well and desperate to escape sawed vainly at their shackles till the flesh of their ankles was raw and bleeding.

For many leagues as they had led the Army of the Dead to Pelargir Gimli had not dared to look behind him. Now he stood on a headland beside Legolas and even in daylight, even as the Dead swept by him to attack their enemies, the Dwarf could hardly bear to look upon them. Legolas, however, gazed at them in wonder, for the Elf did not fear the dead….

As they stood, however, a flock of seabirds, frightened from the still pool beyond the harbour where they had been riding the waves, took to the air, crying loudly.

Legolas turned as if struck by an arrow. His fair face was pale. Gimli looked up at him and asked;
‘What is it, friend? You look as if you have seen a ghost….’ And he glanced down at the Dead, streaming over the rails and onto the decks of the corsair ships and added;
‘As if there were not ghosts enough already….’
‘The gulls!’ replied Legolas ‘Alas for the crying of the gulls!’
Gimli shrugged and said;
‘They trouble me not. There are more fearsome sights to be seen here than a few birds…..’
‘No, Gimli!’ said Legolas, turning to the dwarf who saw grief in his friend’s face. ‘Did you not hear the Lady Galadriel say to me, ‘Beware the crying of the gulls, Legolas Greenleaf’?’
Gimly looked blank. Legolas said in a broken voice;
‘For now I will find no peace on earth, but must seek the West, across the Sea. Worse than any wound was that sound, and I received it unawares…..’ he looked at Gimli and added;
‘Alas for me indeed, for now my heart has been given to mortal friends, and yearns not for the lands beyond the sea…’

And Legolas bent his head. Beyond them the army of the Dead was overwhelming the black ships, and the water was filled with dead and dying. But the Elf saw nothing of it, and tears glinted in his eyes, catching the fires of the burning ships.. then he started as the Dwarf laid a hand on his arm.
‘Come, friend.’ Said Gimli ‘There will be no leaving for the West yet. We have a task to perform..’
He nodded in the direction of Aragorn. The Dúnedain was standing on the headland, watching the ghostly battle. He had drawn Andúril and was gazing with a face that his companions had never seen before upon the chaos below him.
‘Aragorn has need of us.’
Legolas wiped his tears away and nodded hastily. Gimli tightened his grip on his friend’s arm and added in a low voice;
‘And I have need of you, Legolas.’

The Elf looked at the Dwarf with a question in his eyes. Gimli smiled.
‘Did you not promise to journey with me after this war is over? To see the glittering caves of Aglarond and the homes of the Dwarves? And did you not promise to show me the beauties of your forests?’

Legolas nodded again, and a slow smile spread across his fair face. Gimli shook his arm.
‘Come, my friend! There will be no parting for us, not this side of the Sea or even this side of death itself….’

Gimli and Legolas got ready to fight, the Elf drawing his bow and the Dwarf gripping his axe. But their enemy was already in flight. The few ships that had escaped the Army of the Dead were flying southward on what wind there was and the crews of the others were struggling desperately through the strong current towards the Eastern shore. Most, however, were slain or drowned.

Then Aragorn climbed aboard the largest of the corsair fleet, a great black ship with blood-red sails. The Dead stood ranged on the deck, their hollow eyes glowing green as they waited for Aragorn’s orders. From below where the chained slaves cowered in fear could be heard a hubbub of voices, all in terror wondering what would be their fate now…

Aragorn dismissed the Dead, who drifted off the ship and returned to the shore. When they were gone, helped by his own men, the Dunedain of the North, he slid back the hatches and let light and air into the cramped, filthy hold where the slaves were crowded. A great chain ran through their manacles and up onto the deck where it was riveted to a rusty iron ring. Aragorn took Anduril and in one mighty blow he broke apart the ring, then jumping down into the hold he strode along the overseer’s walkway and pulled the chain through the manacles of every slave. When he reached the end he turned and said to them;

‘I am Aragorn, son of Arathorn and this is the sword Andúril, Flame of the West. As heir to Isildur, last King of Gondor I here make you free men again. Many of you are of Gondor, or of her Southern allies. Fight with us now, and be avenged for your slavery and the destruction of your homes. I promise you will all be free men of Gondor when the war is over!’

At first the slaves could not comprehend what they heard. They gaped at Aragorn and the great shining sword he held in his hand. Then, one by one, the truth dawned on them and joy seized them. They were free! They had hope, of seeing their lands again, and of fighting and defeating their enemies. First raggedly, then with a great roar, they shouted their agreement, and the name of Aragorn….

Gimli and Legolas, watching, were astonished to see their friend borne back up to the deck on a wave of ragged, dirty, sweat-streaked humanity, freed slaves, who shouted his name again and again. Aragorn took their salute with a grim, white face; many of his people had died in the loathsome holds of these ships….

Just then one of the slaves pushed through the throng to Aragorn and threw himself down before him, touching his feet as if in entreaty. Aragorn shook his head as if in anger, and raised the man up.

‘No, no! You bow to your king, but you prostrate yourself to no-one! For you are a free man of Gondor…’
A spirited murmur of approval went round the crowd. The man was tall and thin almost to skeletal, with long black hair matted and dirty and with clear blue eyes. He bowed again and said;
‘My Lord Aragorn, before slavery took away all I had, even my name, I was a river pilot, called Díreach for my true guidance. Let me steer you safely up the great river to your city!’

Aragorn gazed at the man for a moment then nodded and another great cheer went up. The rowers then went back below decks and seized their oars again, only this time willingly, as free men, to avenge their country…

Slowly Aragorn’s ship, then one by one the rest of the fleet, swung into the stream and began to make their way Northwards. It was slow going, despite the great effort put into the rowing by the freed slaves, for the river current was strong and they had no assisting wind from the south; the sails hung limp and empty of a breeze. The land crawled past but the day waned quickly, and evening came upon them.

Legolas stood in the prow of the foremost ship, with Aragorn by his side. When the light began to fade he leaned forward and said simply;
‘There is a boat ahead, being carried downstream on the current…’

A stir ran through those on the deck. Sailors crowded the rail peering into the dusk. Aragorn said;
‘Can you see what manner of craft it is, Legolas?’
The Elf gazed for some moments then said;
‘It is an orc barge, some kind of landing craft….’

A commotion broke out. Gimli turned to Legolas and asked;
‘Are there any orcs in it, my friend…?’

The Elf gazed silently for a while then said quietly;
‘There is someone in it, although I cannot tell if it is an orc. They are lying down, covered by a blanket or cloak…’
‘A spy!’ cried Díreach. ‘Thus do they often seek to pass our ships in harbour, or at sea, to send single attackers over the rails onto our decks to set fires or to spy out our strength….’
‘Legolas, your bow!’ said Gimli ‘shoot it before it can reach us…’

Legolas unslung his bow and nocked an arrow to the string, but did not loose it. Despite the fading light he gazed thoughtfully at the approaching craft. It turned gently in the current, a black sliver against the bright water of the evening river. Gimli said to him;

‘What is it, my friend? Why do you not shoot?’
‘It is not my custom…’ said Legolas with a smile ‘to shoot without knowing what I am shooting at. It seems to me no orc would drift right into our fleet, in full view of us all. It may be the occupant of the boat is dead. But I will not fire till I know ..’

Just then the current carried the craft right up to their bows. At a signal from Díreach a sailor cast a hook and line down and snagged the boat, bringing it round till it rose and fell alongside the great warship. There seemed nothing in it but a ragged, dirty green cloak.

Legolas leaped up onto the ship’s rail and dropped lightly down into the boat. He bent and lifted up the cloak and examined what lay beneath. Then he reached down and gathered it up in his arms and taking hold of one of the ship’s ropes he clambered lightly back aboard the ship. He drew one of his knives and slashed the guide rope as he returned aboard, and the black skiff whirled away downstream, soon to be lost to view in the gathering darkness. Then he laid down his burden on the deck.

The sailors crowded round. Aragorn stood watching curiously, saying nothing. Gimli pushed through the throng.
‘What is it, Legolas?’ he said ‘What strange cargo have you found?’
‘Strange indeed…’ said Legolas with a smile, gently removing the dusty green cloak. The sailors gave a gasp of surprise.
‘A lady Ranger …..’