The Dragon and the Fox

by Varda

Chapter 56: A Wizard is Never Late

‘Return to the walls and man your posts!’ Gandalf shouted at the soldiers of Minas Tirith.
‘Prepare for battle!’

For a heartbeat no-one moved; Gandalf was not lord of the City, but Denethor. But all the men on the parapets of the First Level had seen Denethor walk away from the battle; had seen him order his guards to take up the bier carrying his dying son Faramir and then follow it to the White Tower, abandoning his people to their fate. They knew they had no leader now but the Wizard…

‘To the walls!’ a black-clad officer of the Citadel cried, and at once all the men rushed to take up their weapons in defence of the city.

An unearthly shrieking and clanking rose from the plain; great seige towers were being rolled forward by the efforts of giant mountain trolls. Nearer and nearer…
‘Man the catapults!’ shouted Gandalf. ‘Fire at the siege towers….’

Almost as he spoke a sound carried from below, a thump and a whistle, and a mighty boulder sailed over the walls and crashed through a sloping tiled roof. A cry of dismay went up; the walls of Minas Tirith had been built long ago, by Numenorean craftsmen and masons, and their stone was hard and unbreakable. But the orcs were aiming their missiles above the walls, to sail over the battlements and fall on the city within. Gandalf realised what their plan was and shouted to the soldiers;
‘Stand to your posts and return fire. Do not give in to fear! Fire!’ and a mighty coign of stone was flung from a tower out towards the distant smoking ruins of Osgiliath, landing with an earth-shaking crash in one of the dark squares of orcs…

A cheer went up and Gandalf nodded.
‘Yes, that’s it! To them again, men of Gondor….’

Alert to all the frantic activity around him yet calm and unmoving, proud and haughty even in the midst of chaos, Shadowfax stood by Gandalf. The wizard grasped his mane and swung himself up onto the horse’s bare back and with a mere thought he urged the steed up a steep stone walkway onto the upper battlements. Shadowfax flew up the steps and halted behind the soldiers lining the walls. No-one looked round; no-one any more even doubted the Wizard’s right to be in charge. Shadowfax laid his ears back and whinnied defiantly at the dark hosts before the city…

When the orc archers loosed their arrows at the cavalry of Gondor, Marfach closed his eyes; he could not watch Faramir die. Gothmog said to him in a low voice;
‘Open your eyes and watch, Cróga, or I will have you blinded for good….’
So Marfach watched the slaughter, tears trickling down his face. Volley followed volley, and the riders of Faramir never had a chance of reaching even the outer walls of Osgiliath….

But Marfach had keen eyes; the sight of the Elves. After even that killing rain he looked out and saw a few horsemen staggering away, some on foot, others clinging to their wounded mounts and one bent over his horse’s neck. Marfach narrowed his eyes; even at that distance he could see it was Faramir.

The orcs were drawing their bows for another flight. Marfach held up his sword and turned to Gothmog and said;
‘Let us take trophies, Lord!’

And before Gothmog could stop him, Marfach had bounded over the broken wall and was loping away to the line of fallen men and horses. Arrows whipped past his head, but he kept on going.
‘Hold!’ shouted Gothmog at the orc archers. ‘Cease fire…’ He glared at Marfach and thought; I don’t want to kill you yet….

Beyond Gothmog’s sight, hidden in the cloud of dust raised by the hooves of his doomed cavalry, Faramir turned his wounded horse Rua and urged her back towards Minas Tirith…

Gothmog guessed Marfach was up to something. He shouted at him;
‘Cróga! Take their heads as trophies! No, do not let the orcs do it, do it yourself! Let me see you collect them with your own hand….’

Marfach drew the sword he had taken from Madril and walked towards the fallen knights, staring straight ahead and not looking at their faces. Inside he was as cold and numb as a stone…

These were no common rabble, thought Gandalf; their missiles were huge and well aimed. Even from high up on the walls the wizard could see the siege engines that cast them were of great size and skilled workmanship. Variags, a race of man-like orcs from the South, were charged by Sauron with the building and managing of these great machines. Clad all alike in black armour and helms with a crest shaped like a sea monster they swarmed round the great wheeled structures, loading the catapults with great speed and hurling the stones with devastating accuracy.

Just then another volley flew over the walls and fell into the streets and squares of the city. These small missiles wrought no destruction, merely bounced and rolled and came to a halt against walls and doorways and the feet of the soldiers drawn up behind the front lines. Fearing that they might burst into flames the men drew back, and held their shields up to ward the missiles off as they fell. Then a man cried out in horror, and they all looked, and saw that the shot was not stone, but the heads of men, warriors of Gondor or her allies who had fallen in battle in Osgiliath or in the attempt to retake it.

A great cry went up, for many were brothers and comrades of the men on the walls. Looking closer they saw the faces were twisted in pain and branded with the sign of the Red Eye. Some men wept, but others grew quiet with fury and gripped their swords and spears all the more tightly, praying for a chance to get their revenge….

When Gandalf saw what the deadly rain was, grief assailed him. He bowed his head and for a moment he fought with himself. He was an Istari. He had no business feeling the pain of the people. He was commanded to guide them but forbidden to rule them and advised against loving them. And yet….

It was a sleepy summer day. Over the creaking of the wagon Gandalf heard a voice he knew. He hauled on the reins and stopped the horse, looking round. A tiny figure, dark curly hair tousled from dozing in the shade of the trees, gazed down at him from a high bank with undisguised delight.
‘Gandalf!’ Frodo shouted, and threw himself into the wizard’s arms. Gandalf caught the young hobbit easily, noticing how he trusted him to catch him. Frodo laughed and said joyfully;
‘It’s so good to see you!’ Gandalf laughed and patted him on the back.
‘Remember, Frodo..’ he said ‘a wizard is never late…’

Frodo had trusted him absolutely; and he had sent the hobbit on a deadly errand….

‘Back to your posts!’ Gandalf shouted harshly. ‘We will do their funeral rites when we can….’
‘He doesn’t understand, he’s not a man!’ murmured one of the soldiers. The remark stung Gandalf. Almost near to the pain that had smote him when he saw Frodo lying in Rivendell, all the cheer and colour and health that had been in his face that day he greeted him in the Shire was gone, and Frodo was wounded, bearing the wound that would never heal.
‘He’s not a man, he does not understand what it feels like to grieve ….’

‘Back to your posts, draw your bows!’ shouted Gandalf over the words of the men. I am not a man but my destiny lies with men, and I know how to grieve…

‘Send forth all legions!’
The voice, chill as the air in a tomb, echoed round the ruins of Osgiliath and even the orcs quailed to hear the words of the Lord of the Nazgul. After surveying the destruction of the cavalry of Gondor, he had guided his steed to alight on the topmost ruin of the once-beautiful Dome of the Stars. Now he watched as the endless battalions of orcs with their trolls and seige towers streamed across the hastily constructed pontoon bridges over the Anduin.

And yet, for the orcs looking up at him, there was nothing to be seen; the Lord of the Nine wore a tall steel crown with spiked tines and was clad in a long ragged black robe, but below the crown was only emptiness and inside the robe was only space. All there was to be seen was two yellow spots of light, burning in the darkness. The Lord of The Nine was nothing, only what Sauron allowed him to be….

The Nazgul was mounted on a fell steed, a great stinking beast with a hairless skin and jaws armed with rows of long sharp yellow tusks. It shook its head in irritation and made a hissing sound. Its black rider yanked the reins and looked round uneasily; something was disturbing his mount. Beside Gothmog stood his lieutenants, one taller than the others and like a man, red dreadlocks flowing over his blue-black armour, his skin pale as snow, his burning red eyes fixed on the Nazgul, who found his distant memory stirring…was this an Elf?
‘What of the wizard?’ asked Gothmog.

The Witch King looked sharply at the orc captain; he could not be sure the creature was not goading him. Gothmog and all the orcs had seen Gandalf drive away the Nazgul as they attacked Faramir’s retreating garrison. The tall, red-haired, man-like creature was staring intently at him. The King of The Nine replied slowly;

‘I will break him….’