The Dragon and the Fox

by Varda

Chapter 63: The Lighting of the Stars

King Théoden led the charge against the Mumakil, his household guard in their green and gold cloaks flying after him, the banner of the white horse proud above him. Behind him and to his right Éowyn desperately urged Windfola on, anxious not to let her uncle out of her sight. Merry clasped a handful of the horse’s mane to keep in the saddle and wide-eyed he saw the towering Oliphaunts come closer and closer…

On the other side Marfach watched as the army of Rohan sped towards him. The foremost mumak swayed and thundered under him, raising its four tusks, bound with iron bands spiked and painted red, and bellowed.
‘Retreat, proud King!’ Marfach heard himself whisper. ‘These beasts will crush all your people and you as well…’

But still the army of Rohan came on, the Riders fighting their steeds to master their fear of the mumakil, which although poor in sight could scent the approaching cavalry and swung their great heads from side to side, sweeping their tusks in a deadly scything action…..

The two armies met with a roar and a crash and a shattering of weapons as the Mumakil splintered spears and swords raised against them. Then they lifted horses and riders and tossed them as if they weighed no more than thistledown, far to one side or another, to plunge to their deaths on the hard dry ground, or bring further slaughter by falling among their own comrades.

Behind him Marfach could hear the Haradrim archers shouting triumphantly. He turned to see them raise their bows and fire, raining arrows down on those Rohirrim who had eluded the tusks and trunks of the Mumakil on the first attack.

Even from his lofty perch behind the Mumak’s head Marfach could see the slaughter and mayhem below. He wanted to look away but could not. Once he had fought against the Rohirrim and they had left him for dead, a spear thrust in his back. But he had sworn an oath to himself never to bear arms against the West, and to Aragorn to serve him as King. Now all oaths had been broken, and Marfach looked on with a grim set face as the Haradrim fired on his former enemies….

Arrows shot defiantly by the men of Rohan skipped and snapped on the tough hides of the Mumakil and some glanced off Marfach’s orc-armour, and once or twice a Harad archer was struck and with a flailing cry fell from the wooden tower to his death. But the contest was uneven. Looking down, Marfach realised the Rohirrim were being destroyed….

Éomer reined in Liath and looked round. He had galloped through the ranks of the Mumakil twice, firing at their riders with his short bow, for the second lord of the Mark was the finest archer in Rohan. But the swaying of his quarry on the creatures’ backs and the hide walls of the towers put off his aim, and all but a few of his arrows missed their mark.

Now he heard the thunder of the creatures’ feet and looking up saw one bearing down upon him. It was the greatest of all the Mumakil, its tusks stained red with the blood of men and horses. It had twice circled the trampled field, scything through the Rohirrim and now attacked what was left of Éomer’s squadron. Above the beast’s great head Éomer caught sight of its driver, his painted face leering at the carnage below. And the driver in his turn saw Éomer, the lord of the Mark’s red armour and tall helm with its trailing white horse-tail marking him out. With a cry of savage joy he hauled on the chains and steered the mumak towards the lone horseman…

Éomer watched it approach. He felt no fear, only cold fury at the slaughter of his men. He fixed his gaze on the driver of the mumak and hefted his great green and red lance in his hand. He used it only for thrusting and never threw it, for fear of losing it. But the time had come to cast it….

Drawing his arm back Éomer threw the spear with all his strength. As if directed by some guiding power it flew upwards straight and swift and struck the driver square in the chest, driving through him to the haft.

Instantly the man plunged from the neck of the mumak, dead. But he still clutched the chains that directed the beast. At once it veered sharply to the left, feeling its tender ear flap torn by the weight on the iron ring. Trumpeting wildly, it charged straight at the next mumak in the line and plunged headlong into its flank. Its long curved tusks gored the beast behind the front leg, piercing its heart. As it fell it twisted the tusks of the first, bringing it down and breaking its neck….a ragged cheer went up from the Rohirrim.

Mounted on the second mumak Marfach saw the first one stampeding towards him but could not do anything to avoid it. It was like standing on the deck of a ship watching another craft approach with no way of preventing a collision. Around him the Haradrim were shouting in alarm, then suddenly the mumak struck with such force that the tower was tossed to one side and spilled the archers onto the ground. Marfach was flung to the creature’s grey back and seized a trailing knotted rope. He saw the earth rush up to meet him….

When his head cleared Marfach found himself lying on the ground amid the wreckage of the Mumak’s wooden tower. Around him stood the surviving Haradrim, their long red and green robes and black headscarves sullied with dust. Their faces were covered but their dark eyes betrayed fear as they looked round then gathered about Marfach, for he was their leader.

Marfach shook the mist from his eyes. In front of him lay the two slain Mumakil and beyond them the others were pursuing the Rohirrim, who fought them off bravely. The battle stood on a knife’s edge. Marfach said to the Haradrim;
‘You have fought enough for today. Leave now and take no further part in this war. Make for the river, turn South when you reach it and do not look back till you see your Southland home again. Fight no more for ever. Go!’

The Haradrim paused, looking at each other. The battle was not going well; great as they were the Mumakil were being brought down by many arrows or by single lucky shots. This was not the easy victory Sauron had promised them. And the Haradrim feared Marfach and thought he was some sacred being who knew the future. They spoke between each other and decided to obey him. With a hasty nod to him they gathered up their bows and scimitars and turned and ran from the field, and were not seen or heard of in the land of Gondor ever again.

Marfach watched them go with a sigh.
‘A life saved is still a life saved’ he thought to himself ‘even if it is the life of an enemy….’

Just then he heard the drumming of hooves and turning saw a Rider approaching at the gallop. With his sharp Elvish sight he made out the red and gold embossed leather armour of a lord of the Mark. He saw the gilded helm with its crest of a white horse tail and the fine war horse…
‘Éomer!’ thought Marfach.

The first lord of the Mark galloped to where the dead mumak driver lay and leaning over in the saddle he retrieved his red and green lance, hefting it with a grim nod of satisfaction. Then as if feeling Marfach’s gaze upon him he turned and saw him standing beside the dead mumak. At once he spurred Liath at the solitary warrior, setting the lance in rest and shouting his war cry.

Marfach stood motionless, awaiting the rider’s attack. At the last moment, guessing the horse’s path, he stood back and the spear thrust jabbed harmlessly into empty air. Éomer hauled on the reins and wheeled round and with an angry yell he rode back at Marfach, who again waited till the horse was almost upon him then dodged to the side on nimble feet, letting rider and mount career past harmlessly.

Éomer pulled Liath up, panting for breath, and stared at Marfach. There was something familiar about the tall red-haired warrior clad in black mail. He was not an orc, nor a Haradrim, nor an Easterling….but Éomer, incensed by the loss of so many men, was in no mood to spare any foe. Standing up in his stirrups he reached back and threw his spear straight at Marfach.

The flight of the lance lasted only a heartbeat, but even in that time Marfach read its trajectory and waiting till the very last moment he stood still then not even moving his feet he swayed to the side and the spear glided harmlessly over his shoulder. It fell on the hard ground with a hollow clatter and Marfach looked back at it then turned and walking slowly over to it he picked it up, hefted it in his hand and said to Éomer in a taunting voice;
‘Anyone would think you are trying to kill me!’

Éomer sat still on his horse, fury in his heart. But he curbed his anger, for this creature held his lance, and he knew what a fearsome weapon it was. He demanded sharply;
‘Who are you?’

Marfach walked slowly towards him and when he was close enough for Éomer to see his face he stopped and asked quietly;
‘Don’t you know?’

Éomer gasped and said;
‘Marfach! The Red Dragon! Is this how you keep your oath to King Théoden never to bear arms against the Mark again?’

Marfach smiled grimly and answered;
‘There are other oaths, to other lords….’But Éomer interrupted him angrily
‘What do you know of oaths? What do you know of honour? You are just a slave of Mordor and a traitor to everything. You deserve nothing but death!’

Marfach did not reply, but his grey eyes flashed red. Then he smiled and said in a low voice;
‘I may be only a slave, but I hold the spear of the royal house of Eorl..’
‘Give it back to me!’ snapped Éomer. Marfach’s smile broadened. He took a few paces backwards and smote the spear into the dry stony soil then said to Éomer;

‘Come and take it back for yourself if you can, Éomer, Keeper of Oaths. Fight me for it!’

Éomer stared at Marfach, gathering his thoughts. The battle receded and he could see only a hated enemy who had betrayed his uncle’s trust. His gaze rested on Marfach’s tall lean frame and black armour and his warrior’s instinct told him this would be no easy victory. But his blood was roused and he determined to fight.

The lord of the Mark dismounted and took off his white-maned helmet, which would have restricted his vision and movement in combat. He walked slowly towards Marfach, drawing his sword and sizing him up.

To anyone watching the two warriors seemed well matched, but Éomer, although as tall as Marfach, was broader and of more powerful build. He wore heavy leather armour embossed with gold in the emblems of the royal house of Rohan, but he was quick and agile on his feet despite the weight of his armour and in Rohan he was without equal in single combat..

Marfach wore the black orc armour Gothmog had given him, its mail, gleaming with tarnished gilt, reaching to his knees. Wound tight about his lean waist was the red sash of a Haradrim chief overwritten with their outlandish black script and he walked with a slight stoop. The hot breeze stirred the long red dreadlocks on his shoulders and despite his smile his pale face was tense and watchful.

Éomer saw Marfach bore a Ranger’s sword and his anger rose; what soldier of Gondor had this creature slain to steal his sword? But then the Lord of the Mark noticed that Marfach’s left hand was missing and could not repress a satisfied smile. Marfach without taking his eyes from Éomer’s face bent down and picked up a small round buckler of black hide such as the Haradrim carry. It was made of layers of skin cured with bull’s blood and bound with brass, and on its boss was a spike like a dagger. Marfach pushed his arm through the loops then took hold of the loose strap and pulled it tight with a violent tug, so the buckler was fast on his arm. He smiled grimly at Éomer and said;
‘What are you waiting for, Forgoil?’

Goaded by the insulting name given to the Rohirrim by the Dunlendings and eager to punish Marfach for his treachery Éomer rushed to attack him.

Marfach feinted to the right then to the left in a swift and agile dance, and Éomer charged past harmlessly.
‘This is no good’ he thought ‘he can dodge me all day and wear me out. I must get to grips with him….’
‘Fight me you devil's lackey’ he taunted Marfach, who did not answer but his face grew even paler. Éomer ran at him again and Marfach raised his shield and Éomer’s sword glanced off it and Marfach hit back and their blades struck sparks. As Marfach drew back to strike again Éomer suddenly planted his feet and threw himself forward, knocking down the small shield and driving his mailed shoulder into Marfach’s chest, throwing him backwards onto the ground with a jarring thud.

Marfach’s sword was pinned under Éomer, who struggled to free his own blade and stab him. Their faces only inches apart they grappled furiously for an endless moment, then Marfach freed the buckler as Éomer pushed himself back and raised his sword and before he could bring it down Marfach slammed the spiked boss of the shield into Éomer’s leg, piercing his greave and stabbing him behind the knee.

Éomer gave a cry of pain and anger and for a second his sword arm was halted in its descent. In that moment Marfach rolled aside with a kick and Éomer’s blow hit the sand.

Marfach leaped to his feet and grasping the Ranger’s sword tightly he gave Éomer no chance to recover but threw himself on the Lord of the Mark, hewing and cleaving, knocking chips from his fine steel sword, forcing him back as he struggled to get to his feet and fight off his attacker.

Back, back, Éomer was forced, weakened by his wound. He could feel the blood trickling down his leg under his armour and felt dizzy. He knew with a warrior’s canniness that even a little graze could give the victory away in a contest as savage as this. But his courage was not injured and he gave blow for blow, even though he was beginning to wonder if it was a man or a demon he fought….

For as Éomer weakened Marfach seemed to get stronger. His eyes blazed red with rage and he threw back every attempt by the warrior of Rohan to defend himself. Far in the distance a greater battle raged, but it might have been in another realm so locked were these two in deadly combat..

At last, answering a gallant thrust by Éomer, Marfach drove his spiked shield against the man’s chest and stepping back Éomer’s foot struck a discarded orc weapon and he tripped and staggered and almost fell. At once Marfach threw himself upon him but as he closed Éomer dug his hand into his belt and desperately pulled out a small silver-handled dagger, its hilt fashioned like a wolf's head with red garnet chips for eyes, and with all his strength he plunged it into Marfach’s body under his ribs.

Marfach gave a gasp, and for a moment he ceased his attack and a spark of wild hope lit Éomer’s heart. But then Marfach, with almost superhuman strength, dropped his sword and clamping his hand on Éomer’s wrist he tightened it till the man was forced, with a cry of pain, to let go his sword. Then Marfach snatched up his again and held the blade to the man’s throat.

‘Yield!’ he shouted. Éomer stared at him in astonishment; orcs and other servants of Mordor never took captives. Even the warriors of Rohan never gave an enemy pardon. Now Marfach offered Éomer quarter in the ancient language of chivalry of Gondor. But Éomer was too proud…
‘Submit to you?’ he cried ‘Submit to Sauron? Never!’

The blade edge grazed the skin of Éomer’s throat and he closed his eyes and into his mind came a vision of Éowyn’s face and he wished with all his heart that he could see his sister one last time….

Marfach stared down at his enemy and felt his own blood running away from his wounded side. Suddenly he was aware of a lightening of the Eastern sky and he looked up in the direction of the city. The Nazgul! he thought. The Nazgul were gone!

For the sky above the plain was clear, and Marfach, with his far sight, suddenly realised that the Lord of the Nine was no more; he was slain. But he had not perished alone…

Waiting for the last blow, Éomer opened his eyes and looked up at Marfach. The creature met his eyes then suddenly withdrew his sword from his throat and stood up unsteadily. Éomer scrambled to his feet as well, and they faced each other. Slowly, Marfach took his sword and turning it round he offered the hilt to Éomer and said;

‘It is I who submit to you, the first ever to acclaim you King of Rohan. Take my sword and my allegiance, and judge me as you see fit, for you are King of the Mark now….’

Éomer stared at Marfach in astonishment, then looked away to the East. The Mumakil were scattered and fleeing. A great host was streaming across the Pelennor, some strange army of night and the forces of Mordor were fleeing before them. But nowhere did Éomer see the white horse of King Théoden’s banner, and an awful fear fell on his heart. He snatched the sword out of Marfach’s hand and said;
‘How do you know this? It is not given to men to see into the unknown….’

‘That is true’ said Marfach wearily then smiled. ‘But I am not a man…..’

And with those words Marfach closed his eyes and fell forward into the dust at the feet of King Éomer of Rohan.

The path through the forest seemed endless. Marfach was aware of growing weary, even though Elves never tire. A chill settled on his limbs, and he could not see in the darkness, even though Elves can see well in night-time. At last, to his relief, the great beeches and oaks thinned and he come out on a grassy slope looking over wide plains to distant snow-capped mountains.
‘Where am I?’ he wondered.

The plains were similar to those of the Mark, so this must be the edge of Fangorn Forest. The sky was clear, but looking up Marfach could not see a single star; there was no sky, only a black void. Marfach began to be afraid….

Suddenly he heard hoofbeats, and saw, approaching across the frost-grey plain, a cloaked rider mounted on a black horse. He led a second mount, a white horse such as the Rohirrim ride. The figure rode straight up to Marfach and reined to a halt. There was a silence, and Marfach asked;
‘Who are you, and what is this place?’

The rider made a sound that could have been a laugh, and replied;
‘It is not for you, Cróga, to ask questions. Your time here is over. Mount this horse and come with me…’
‘Where?’ asked Marfach, but the figure did not answer, only sat on his horse, waiting. Marfach spoke again.
‘Tell me where you are taking me, or I will not go..’
‘Very well’ said the rider, his voice neither impatient or angry. ‘Into the West…’

Marfach shook his head and said;
‘That cannot be; I gave my passage to the Elf Realms to a man, Boromir of Gondor. I cannot take ship into the West…’
‘Another Elf has given his place to you’ said the figure.
‘How can that be?’ asked Marfach, but a cold feeling crept over his heart. The rider replied, in the same even tone;
‘His Elven spirit has been marred by the sorcery of Saruman; he cannot go to the West; but he can give you the chance to go in his place.’
‘Who is this Elf?’ asked Marfach fearfully.
‘Líofa the Harpist’ said the rider in a calm voice.

‘Líofa!’ said Marfach in anguish. ‘But he lives….’ The figure shook his hooded head.
‘No more; he fell in the same battle as you yourself. This is his gift to you, and I am commanded to bring it to you…’

Marfach hung his head; Líofa in the Pelennor! Had he known, he might have saved him. But it was useless to bewail what had already happened. He raised his head and said to the figure;
‘I am not going.’

The figure did not speak for some time, then said;
‘Why?’. Marfach tried to see the face under the hood and replied;
‘It is not true that Líofa’s spirit is marred by evil; he may yet be healed and reach the West. But if I take his place he will never reach it.’
‘If you refuse, neither of you will reach it’ said the figure.
’You will both be left to perish in the world of Men…’

After a long pause Marfach replied;
‘So be it.’

The Rider seemed to study Marfach’s face for some time, then gave a bow and turning led the white horse away, down the slope and off towards the distant mountains.

After he was gone Marfach felt himself begin to grow cold. His heart was sick and he felt a great weariness on his limbs. He looked up and saw that the sky, so empty of light before, was scattered with countless stars bright against the deep blue void.

'The stars are kindled, Líofa...' he said.