The Dragon and the Fox

by Varda

Chapter 7: To Keep an Oath

The hunt went past Marfach with a great crashing and yelling in the brush. Standing still in the moon-shadows of the ash grove he listened intently. Ahead the quarry, two Rangers, fast but not as fast as the orcs pursuing them, were fleeing towards the river. But they would never reach it.

Marfach had followed the orcs since crossing their trail two days before, on his journey south out of Anórien into Ithilien. In the wavering moonlight of a cloud-strewn night he had seen them streaming out of the East and a cold shadow fell on his heart as he recognised the Red Eye on the embossed shields. They were on some dark errand, for they seemed to throw caution away and hurry forward as if driven by invisible whips. Engraved on Marfach's very soul was his oath to Aragorn, but he knew these orcs purposed some great mischief and as they were driving south in the same direction as he was he fell in behind them to discover their errand.

Marfach could pass unseen and unheard in forest or open ground, from his Elvish woodcraft and from the powers of stealth given to him by Sauron. As the orcs galloped through the trees and bushes heedless of what noise they made they never dreamed they were being followed. But then, after running for an hour into darkness, they had swerved and followed a hidden trail East again. Marfach stopped. Now to follow them would mean digressing from the path he had promised Aragorn he would take. The sound of the orcs grew fainter as he wavered.

Then he pulled his cloak tightly round him and thought to himself, "There is more than one way to keep an oath, Lord Aragorn...," and he set off swiftly in pursuit of the orcs.

He came on them so suddenly he was almost seen, and he ducked back into the trees to watch....

The orcs were drawn up in a circle in a clearing around a helmet upturned on the moonlit ground. One of the orcs, with a Red Eye emblazoned on his armour, was speaking. Marfach knew he was the leader and knelt down in the shadows to hear what he had to say.

The orc used the Black Speech, but Marfach understood it. As he listened to the guttural sounds a chill crept over him, but he bent his head and with a great effort began to think in the language of Mordor. For Marfach knew all the tongues of the Black Land. Visiting in thought again that grim realm where he had been incarcerated for so long he concentrated on what the orc was saying....

"The Ranger scum are not far ahead! The Dark Lord has good friends in Minas Tirith and they have guided us true. In a few hours we will overtake them on their secret path which is a secret no longer to the Red Eye. Then they will perish and we will receive our reward!"

There was a murmur of anticipation among the orcs, "We will taste man flesh!" The murmur grew to a shout. Marfach felt a pain inside his skull and wanted to stop his ears, but forced himself to listen. Memory tore at his heart.

"Now, who will be first?"

The orcs raised a howl and rushed forward. Their leader beat them off with the flat of his scimitar. "Back, you rabble! Take your turn!" and the orcs, one after the other, took pebbles from the helmet. At last one drew a black pebble out and shrieked with delight. The leader clapped long claws on his shoulder and cried, "Well done, Gréim, you will lead the hunt!" The orc grinned, revealing the long yellow fangs that had earned him his name, Bite.

These orcs of Mordor were not as tall or massive as the Uruk-hai of Isengard. They ran with a half-crouching gait but they covered the ground rapidly, not encumbered by great heavy armour but clad in close-fitting black greaves and breastplates of well wrought metal over fine-linked chain mail. Their helmets were horned and crested and the vizors revealed little of their broad swarthy faces but in the depths Marfach could see the gleam of sharp yellow teeth and glowing eyes like a cat. Most carried light round bucklers stamped with The Eye, and long curved scimitars. Spikes bristled from their shoulders and elbows and in the moonlight they looked like some restless swarm of great armoured insects. Suddenly they all seized their weapons, took a grip on their bucklers and set off at a ground-devouring run towards the river, and their prey....

Now Marfach came up behind them where they had paused, on the edge of a precipice, with the Rangers cornered below them in the trees. A debate was raging among the orcs:

"No! I am not going first! The cursed black robes are hiding in those trees, waiting to spit us on arrows!"

"One of them is as good as dead, and anyway, you drew the stone!"

"I don't care! I don't want to be skewered. Here, you can have your stinking stone back!"

As the orcs argued, Marfach looked around. They had come to the edge of the scattered woodland. To the north stretched away uplands clothed with bracken. Marfach smiled to himself. In winter bracken withered to a dry, rustling red cover on the mountainside. It rarely burned in winter, but so dry and parching had the wind from the East been during this season that it was like tinder.

Bracken was an old friend to Marfach; deep enough to hide him while he eluded the armies of the West, yet crackling noisily when anything tried to approach. And it burned well....

The orcs had settled their argument. Some sharp blows and a lot of shouted curses and the battle line was ready to charge down the slope. Their tracker peered out over the edge of the cliff....then raised his head and sniffed. He looked back and pointing to the hill beyond shouted, "Ghâsh!"

Behind the hill rose a line of fire. The dry bracken was ablaze, and against it the trees and stones on the ridge stood out in sharp relief. Panic broke out among the orcs: they must be surrounded! Rangers must be behind them as well as in front of them and now they had set this fire and it would burn them or drive them down to the river bank where the cursed swords of the black robes woud cut them to pieces....

Despite their leaders' efforts, the orcs scattered. Their courage was spread thinly, and when some threat greater than the fear of their dread master loomed it was quickly overcome. And all the dark lord's creatures feared fire, and those who wielded it.

Marfach stood still in a stand of rowan trees. Stinging, choking smoke blew past him towards the orcs. He had been lucky, the wind had favoured him. Wrapped in his elven cloak he was invisible in the dark and a scattering of orcs fled straight past him. There was a flash of red light on the Elven dagger that Marfach had taken from Líofa and the last orc vanished from the track. While the creature still lay kicking feebly Marfach took its black bow and quiver and put an arrow to the string. He well knew how to use the short wickedly curved bows of Mordor, but now for the first time he used one against Mordor....

Below the cliff Dian lowered her bow and gazed in astonishment at the skyline. A great ragged crown of flames spread across the hillside, visible, she guessed, for many miles, certainly from the river and perhaps even from Minas Tirith. What could it mean? She wondered if it was the orcs' doing, but then with a cry of fear the orcs came pouring over the cliff edge, not attacking but fleeing, hardly caring if she fired or not. She raised her bow but so fast were the creatures running that she could hardly fasten on a target. And as they fled into the wood and past her one leaped into the air and fell flat, a black arrow sticking out of its neck. The rest disappeared into the trees, fleeing towards the river.

All of a sudden quiet descended, except for the rushing and crackling of the burning bracken. In the flickering light of the fire Dian looked over at Altán, who lay still where she had left him. She was about to go to him when her eye was drawn by movement and something came between her and the fires and she looked and half dazzled by the bright glare she made out the glint of a great sword and a tall figure in an ancient hauberk such as the Dunlendings wore. A gust of black smoke rolled through the wood and the figure laid a hand on the hilts of the sword and in the baleful light Dian saw on the hand a red dragon and bringing up her bow with a cry she drew the string back and hardly pausing to aim she loosed the arrow and the bow sang....