The Dragon and the Fox

by Varda

Chapter 59: Smoke on the Water

‘What of Cair Andros?’ asked Prince Imrahil.
‘Much must be risked in war’ said Denethor. ‘Cair Andros is manned, and no more can be sent so far….’
JRR Tolkien; The Return of The King

Seolta felt himself beginning to slip from his horse’s back but could not save himself. With a curse and a thump he fell off onto the hard grassland of the Riddermark. His horse, a spirited bay, kicked its heels and galloped ahead of the mounted band of Rangers and Elves.

All that day and the day before the Black Company and the surviving Galadhrim had ridden swiftly to get as far away from Helm’s Deep as possible, lest the Rohirrim sought to reclaim their stolen horses. Seolta, the leader of the Black Company, thought to himself that this must be the first time any Elves had fled from men of Rohan. But the Galadhrim were unconcerned that they rode stolen mounts, for no mortal man, even the Rohirrim, could have urged a horse to run as swiftly as the Elves did merely by thought, and they feared no pursuit.

Seolta, however, could not command his horse by thought; he could barely ride at all, and this was not the first time he had fallen off. But this time hurt; his shoulder ached as he sat on the ground, winded. He was aware of all the Rangers and the Galadhrim looking at him. He got painfully to his feet…

The young Ranger Fíor urged his own mount after Seolta’s and catching him led him back.
‘He is too much for you, Seolta!’ the lad said, sliding off his horse and handing the reins to his leader.
‘Take my mare, she is quiet and biddable…’

Seolta snatched the reins from the boy and snapped;
‘I don’t need your advice on horses!’ then in a low voice; ‘don’t humiliate me in front of the company!’
‘Then try not to fall off!’ retorted Fíor, who swung himself back up on his horse and rode away, his face dark with anger. In the silence the tall, grim dark-haired Elf Dearfa said;
‘When you stole the Rohirrim’s horses, you should have stolen their saddles too…’

One or two of the Rangers struggled to hide their smiles, but the Elves did not laugh, and despite his humiliation Seolta realised that Dearfa was not making fun of him. He looked after Fíor with a sigh; he would never make a leader. He did not have the art of inspiring men, as Ruán had, or of healing them, as Críonna had. And he could not ride. Taking charge was a mistake, he thought bitterly.

Just then Rosc, the Galadhrim leader rode up to him and dismounting he nodded to him to follow him.
‘Rest your horses for a while!’ Seolta called to the men and Elves, and they dismounted gladly and stretched their legs. Seolta walked up to Rosc, wondering had he done something to offend the Elves…

‘What are you so angry for?’ asked the tall, fair-haired Elf.

Seolta looked up at him in surprise. The Elf was not impatient or annoyed, but wore a baffled look. His grey eyes were twinkling and there was a ghost of a smile on his fair face. Seolta remembered that among the warrior Galadhrim Rosc was a singer, harpist to Queen Galadriel. The Ranger shrugged and said;
‘I am not angry, just impatient to reach Gondor. I am not much used to cavalry warfare…’
Rosc shook his head.
‘That is not what I meant’ he said. Seolta looked at him questioningly. The Elf went on;
‘You are angry at everything; the lad, the horse, the lack of time. But most of all, Ranger, you are angry at yourself. Why?’

Seolta stared at the Elf; he was right. The calm grey eyes were fixed earnestly on his face, awaiting a reply.
‘I am not equal to this command!’ he said in a low voice. ‘I am not of high lineage, like Críonna and Ruán and the other Rangers. I am not kin to any noble house of Arnor, nor can I trace my line to Numenor. I am of the North, but of lesser chieftains of old, mere allies of Isildur and Gondor. I have no right to lead a company of Rangers!’ He gestured at the horse.
‘I can’t even ride!’

There was a pause then Rosc smiled. Seolta felt annoyed; what was there to smile about? The Elf said;
‘You are wrong; fate gave you this charge. You are a great leader, and a great warrior. Did you not lead the villagers safely to Helm’s Deep when they were attacked? Did you not fight at the siege, and come out alive, and what is more did you not bring your company safely through the battle? And did Ruán not trust you with the leadership of the Black Company?’
‘Ruán is our true leader!’ exclaimed Seolta.
‘No!’ answered Rosc. ‘The task has been appointed to you!’

Seolta did not reply. Rosc looked away to the East and continued in a sad voice;
‘The Enemy sows doubt in our hearts, makes us think we cannot do that which we were born to do. Look at King Théoden! He has ridden to war, who thought his life’s great deeds were over…‘ then he turned to Seolta and to the man’s surprise he placed a hand over his heart in the Elvish gesture of friendship and said;
‘Leave your anger and be at peace, with others and with yourself. You are no lesser chieftain, but of the line of Numenor. We Elves cannot be fooled about such things…’

To his surprise, Seolta felt calmer at the Elf’s words. He felt ashamed of his outburst and for speaking angrily to Fíor. Rosc smiled.

‘And take the lad’s advice and ride the mare….’

The Rangers remounted and the company rode on. They could have turned south and followed in the tracks of King Théoden and his Riders, but they feared to lose time looking for him in the foothills of the White Mountains. They decided to keep the distant blur of the tree-lined Entwash on their left and head for the river fortress of Cair Andros then follow the Anduin South to Minas Tirith, hoping to reach it before it was attacked……..

All that day and the next they rode, over the endless plains of the Mark then through low hills crowned with outcrops of grey rock and yellow gorse. Ahead of them a dark bank of cloud blocked out all light from the East and as they rode on they knew it came from Mordor, and they realised the sun would not shine again until the Shadow had been defeated in battle.

Even after dark came they rode, for Elves can see as well by night as by day. The horses’ breaths steamed in the misty darkness and the silence was broken only by their hooves and the occasional low command given to the Rangers. As night waned the company halted and the men snatched a few hours of exhausted sleep. But the Elves, who never slept, sat or lay looking up through the ragged cloud at the blue-black sky, thinking of Lórien and drawing strength from the light of the stars.

But An Bruadar could not sleep; every time he dozed off he began to slip into horrible dreams, desperate pursuits through burning streets amid dreadful slaughter…he would wake at once with a start. So he wrapped himself in his cloak and lay wondering what awaited them in Gondor. He looked round at the Elves. Rosc and Dearfa sat talking quietly together, Rosc’s fair hair catching the faint gleam of starlight and Dearfa’s head as black as a raven’s wing head scarcely discernible from the shadows.

On the breastplate of his gilded armour Dearfa wore a roundel with a star, which shone with a faint blue glow. An Bruadar wondered again why this noble Galadhrim had given up the place of second in command to him…he was startled when Dearfa spoke to him;
‘Go to sleep, Dreamer. You cannot go on without rest. You will have no dreams this night….’

Strangely reassured by the Elf’s words, An Bruadar slipped into a deep dreamless sleep. When he was sure the Ranger was no longer awake, Rosc got to his feet and walked over and knelt beside him. He examined the man’s pale drawn face, at rest for the first time in days, and gently pulled his cloak closer round him. Dearfa came up to him and said in a low voice;
‘How is he?’
Rosc shook his head.
‘Something hovers just beyond the threshold of the dark, waiting for him. He is weakening. I don’t think he has much more time…’
‘Mortal men…’ said Dearfa sadly ‘..were never meant to possess the Sight…’

An Bruadar was woken from his sleep by the giant Ranger Téagar. A slow grey dawn was casting a chilly light on the downs.
‘Get up, Dreamer!’ said the Ranger. ‘Time to move on ….’

As day brightened they drew closer to the Anduin. The low hills fell away to groves of young birch clothed in the vivid green of early spring. There was nothing spring-like about the sky, however, overcast with clouds the colour of lead and a poisonous hot wind from the East. The company advanced cautiously through the trees, wary of orc troops moving along the river.

When they could hear the sound of water Rosc halted them and indicated to Scafa the tracker and Dearfa to scout ahead.

Scafa’s wounds from the battle of Helm’s Deep were not yet healed, but when Seolta suggested he stay behind in Helm’s Deep he had protested with spirit;
‘What, and face the Rohirrim when they wake up and find you have stolen their horses? I think not…’
‘Not stolen, Scafa’ replied Téagar mildly. ‘just borrowed. We will return them, bye and bye….’

Many times during the past three days Scafa had almost repented of his decision as his wounds ached from the long hard ride. But now, with the river within reach, he forgot his pains and crept forward, ears straining for any sound over that of the water…then the Elf Dearfa laid a hand on his arm and nodded ahead. Scafa stared at him, wondering what he meant. Then he understood; smoke. The Elf was pointing to a thin veil of smoke streaming across the grey sky. Some fort or village was burning….

During their ride the Black Company and the Galadhrim had come across many villages; all burned to the ground. But they found no people, either living or dead, for the villagers had fled to Helm’s Deep or Edoras before the Uruk-hai had come into this part of the Mark. But the emptiness of the country unnerved the men; was this what Sauron would bring to all Middle Earth as he extended his power over all the land?

Now Scafa and Dearfa crawled forward through the bracken under the trees and emerged on a ridge overlooking the river. They peered out cautiously and saw below them the wide silver crescent of a bend in the Anduin. And in the middle of the river was an islet, wooded at the southern end and with a great grey rock like the prow of a ship on the Northern tip, parting the river which foamed white round it. This was Cair Andros, the fortress built long ago to protect Anórien from the threat in the East, and defended by a garrison of Gondor.

But no more; Scafa gripped a handful of fern in horror, almost jumping to his feet. Dearfa too gasped. Before them, leaking a great column of greasy black smoke into the sullen sky stood the fortress of Cair Andros, burned and broken and overthrown.

The company, heedless now of orcs, hurried down to the shore. From the waterside the scene was even more terrible; the dead of Mordor lay everywhere in mounds on the shore and at the base of the castle walls, destroyed by a rain of arrows and molten fire poured by the defenders. But among their dark carcasses gleamed the bright armour of men of the garrison, thrown from the walls when the orcs had overrun the castle. The river, wide and calm here as it flowed round the island, was dyed red with blood, both of men and orcs. And from the highest tower of the castle streamed smoke, like a funeral banner.

Seolta dismounted and walked stiffly into the shallows, staring at the fortress walls, broken by the siege engines of Mordor. The river was clogged by a great jumble of burned and wrecked craft, used by the orcs in their assault.

Then Seolta saw the body of a man, not in armour but wearing the green cloak and leather hauberk of a Ranger, drifting past on the current. He was face down and two black orc arrows stuck out of his back. His long dark hair streamed out in the moving water, waving gently as he was carried past on the river.

Seolta stood motionless, staring at him, but Fíor ran into the water and waded out after the body. Seolta said sharply to him;
‘Come back; we have no time for this….’
Fíor turned and said, tears in his voice;
‘We cannot leave them! It would not be right…’

Seolta went to reply in anger, then caught himself. He waded out to where the boy stood looking at him with a white, defiant face. He said in a kindly voice;
’We have no time to give them burial, Fíor, only to avenge them. We have sworn to aid Minas Tirith, we cannot tarry here…’
Tears ran down the young Ranger’s cheeks after a few seconds hesitation he nodded and turned back to the shore where the other Rangers and the Elves sat on their horses in silence..

Suddenly Scafa shouted and pointed and they all turned and saw, in the sky to the South, a great angry red glow.

‘It is the city burning!’ said Téagar. ‘Minas Tirith is burning! We are too late!’

Everyone began to talk at once, but stopped when An Bruadar spoke, in a cold calm voice;
‘No, it is not Minas Tirith. But it is some fortress close to it, perhaps one of the Causeway Forts…’
Fíor stared at An Bruadar, wondering how he knew, but then Rosc said;
‘If the causeway and the Rammas is taken, the assault on the city has begun!’

A ripple of excitement and anger ran through the company. Seolta walked back to his horse and grasping its mane pulled himself onto its back and said to Rosc;
‘The time for caution is past; we must ride now as fast and straight as we can towards Minas Tirith. Death to those who seek to hinder us…!’

Rosc bowed his head in assent and at his signal one of the Elves unfurled a long silken banner. It was of silver-grey and green and blue silk sewn with tiny golden stars and a roundel bearing the emblems of Queen Galadriel and her consort Celeborn. Along its hem ran a border of golden Mallorn leaves. The Elf affixed it to a lance and it flew bravely in the smoke-laden wind. All who saw it thought of the green realm of Lothlórien, the elanor flowers bright in the sunshine or the woods deep and dark under the eternal stars of the Elves.

Then at a signal from Seolta one of the Rangers took out the banner of the Black Company, made for them by the Lady Galadriel herself. They fixed it to a spear, and the black silken flag, plain and with no device upon it but sewn with a myriad of tiny diamonds like stars in the night sky, flew side by side with the banner of Lothlórien.

‘Forward the Black Company and the Galadhrim!’ shouted Seolta.
‘Forward to Gondor….’