The Dragon and the Fox

by Varda

Chapter 73: Darkwing

Marfach’s throat burned with thirst but the waterskin that Éomer had given him before he rode away was now drained and empty. Marfach clutched it to his chest, fingering the chased silver mouthpiece and delicately wrought silver chain by which it had been hung on the saddle bow of King Théoden’s nephew. But fine as the flask was, there was no water left in it.

But Marfach did not throw it away. If the Rohirrim came on him again the silver flask would be a token that Éomer Lord of the Mark had spared him, so his people must spare him too. Despite his pain Marfach smiled; the Riders of Rohan had almost slain him before, and now their new king had almost slain him again. Yet Éomer had spared him in the end. Rohan was both his nemesis and his salvation…..

But his smile faded quickly. The deep wound he had received from Éomer gave him greater pain than he had ever known, even when his hand had been struck off. His body was on fire and every movement was torture. From even before Sauron had given him special powers, Marfach had had an uncanny ability to recover from mortal wounds. But now he felt himself weakening, slipping away from the physical world he had shared with men and Elves for so many ages.
‘I’m dying…’ thought Marfach.

The black cloud sent from Mordor to shadow the advance of the orc army had been blown away as Sauron’s forces were driven back in battle. It was as if the Dark Lord’s power was stretched to maintain his military offensive in the face of the spirited defence by the men of Rohan and Mordor. The sun came out again, and shone bright and hot, increasing Marfach’s torment as he lay on the parched battle-ground.

‘I must find some shade….’ he thought.

All around was the wreckage of battle; the warriors of Mordor and Rohan, sprawled in death with their broken weapons at their side. Discarded orc-armour, blood-soaked grass and dead beasts, both the noble steeds of the Mark and the foul carrion used by the orcs as beasts of burden. And not far away, a dead Mumak, like some vast grey hill, its towers now empty of archers and leaning at a drunken angle to the slain monster that had borne them….

‘That will be shade enough, if only for dying in…’ thought Marfach, and he began to drag himself painfully towards the great animal, his good hand clutched to his wounded side….

Despite his weakness, Marfach’s senses were preternaturally clear. He could hear the chieftains of the Rohan calling to their men, rallying them for a final stand against Mordor. He could hear the crows, patrolling the battleground in search of the newly dead to feast upon. And he recalled the voice of Gothmog, mocking him….

‘An Elf? You are not Elf, Marfach, Críoga as the Elves called you….’

Marfach dragged himself past a dead Haradrim captain. He was handsome, in the fierce manner of the Southrons, his face dark with the sun and his long black hair spread out on the dusty ground. In a gold and ruby-encrusted scabbard he bore a curved dagger, still unsheathed, for its owner had been slain by an arrow in the throat before he could draw it. Marfach reached over and pulled it out and stuck it in his own belt.
‘You never know….’ He muttered through gritted teeth ‘…when you might need something like that…’

‘You are not an Elf…not an Elf…’

Gothmog’s voice echoed in his head. As his strength ebbed Marfach’s thoughts seemed to grow ever clearer, as if the temporary waning of Sauron’s power had allowed him to see things he had never seen before….

‘When the Company of Melian fell prey to Sauron, they all succumbed, but I did not’ he thought.
‘They were all Elves, high-born and of great skill in war…’ his head ached with thinking.
‘And Elves can die of grief, and many did so when taken prisoner by Sauron. They died of melancholy and denied him victory over their spirits. But however overcome by despair I was, I never perished. I wanted to die, but I could not….’

Marfach stopped to rest, and a black-hooded crow flew down and landed nearby, then hopped over to him, regarding him curiously with its head on one side.
‘What do you want, Lord of the Crows?’ Marfach thought.
‘Only your flesh and blood, when you are ready to leave them to me…’ the Crow King replied.
‘But that is a long time away, for you are Cleite Dú, Darkwing, and no beast would dare seek your life. We must wait till the servants of Sauron slay you…’

‘You are a rat clad in feathers!’ shouted Marfach, reaching out and grabbing a handful of pebbles and flinging them at the crow, which took off and flew away cawing loudly.

‘Now that is puzzling….’ thought Marfach. ‘Elves may talk with beasts, but I can talk with creatures of both the dark and light, as no Elf can do….’

Marfach had almost reached the shade of the dead Mumak’s high saddle tower. The archers were all long gone, killed by the beast’s fall or fled. Banners of red with a black salamander on them stirred in the wind. Marfach wondered;
‘What did the Crow King call me? Cleite Dú? Darkwing?’

A few more painful feet and Marfach slumped against the grey wall of the dead Mumakil’s flank. It was rough and gritty, but Marfach was glad to lean against it. As he regained his breath and the pain of his wound abated, a voice spoke in his head. It was Galadriel, a voice from his far past….

‘You are not as the other Lost Elves, Críoga. You walked the Earth when it was young, before even the Elves were born. Before even I was born. You are an elemental. Not even I can understand your destiny. But then, I scarcely understand my own…’

‘Not an Elf?’ thought Marfach. He laughed, then regretted it when it caused a sharp spasm of pain to shoot up his side.
‘Then I did not surrender my hope when I gave Boromir my place on a ship into the West. For I do not need to go into the West. All places are home to me, and none….’

But his thoughts were interrupted by a loud, harsh laugh. Marfach struggled to sit up and look around. Not twenty paces away, limping towards him, was Gothmog…

Fear clutched at Marfach. Not just what Gothmog would do, but what he would say….

‘So, you survived, again’ growled Gothmog. As he came closer Marfach saw he was fearfully wounded. His black armour was smeared with dark blood and one side of his face was a ruin of black and red. But his one good eye still gleamed balefully, and his one good hand still gripped a crooked black blade. Blood flew from his twisted mouth as he snarled at Marfach.
‘Been doing some thinking, have you?’ Marfach stared at him. Gothmog laughed.
‘Good for you! We are in this together, you and I, Críoga. We were once both better, beings of light….’ Gothmog paused, suddenly unable to speak. But he recovered quickly and said with a sneer;
‘This is our destiny now, and we will serve our Dark Master to the end, however bitter….
‘No!’ cried Marfach. ‘It is over, Gothmog, don’t you see that? Sauron’s power is broken. If he is not defeated today, he will be defeated tomorrow. Even if you kill me, Mordor will fall. It is written on my heart, as it once was on yours….’

Gothmog did not reply, just stood swaying slightly in the strong West wind that had sprung up, staring hard at Marfach,. He held the black blade ready, though…

‘You have reminded me of what I once was’ said Marfach. ‘Now remember what you once were, and put aside your allegiance to Mordor….’
‘If I did that’ said Gothmog in an almost gentle voice ‘The wind would pick me up and blow me away, like chaff at the winnowing. Even the life of a slave is better than no life at all….’

Marfach stared at Gothmog, and for a moment he felt pity for the creature that had once been bright and good. But then the sneer of cruelty returned to Gothmog’s face and he said to Marfach.

‘You were alive when the Elves appeared on Middle Earth and you were alive when Sauron took you prisoner and warped you and slew your memory of all good things. But even a being like you cannot live if he is beheaded. Now, Marfach, I will give you the rest you seek….’
‘You are the one who wants to die’ snapped Marfach. ‘I have had enough of death; I want to live…’
‘What a pity….’ Said Gothmog, shuffling forward and raising his blade…

Gamling looked at Éomer with mixed feelings; how smoothly the Lord of the Mark slipped into the role of King! But Gamling had been Théoden’s man, and it was not easy for him, even with his king slain before him, to give his allegiance to another master….

‘Gamling!’ shouted Éomer. ‘Are you hurt?’

Gamling shook his head, not able to speak. Éomer turned his horse’s head and spurred over to him.
‘Then what is amiss?’ he said in a low voice, thinking Gamling had some ill news he did not want to tell him before the men. But Gamling merely shook his head and stammered;
‘Nay, Lord, pardon my tardy answer…I…’

Then Éomer understood; no-one had been closer to the king than Gamling, save only his sister-daughter, Éowyn, and she was with him now in death.
‘Do you wish to revenge your King?’ asked Éomer in a low voice. Gamling looked at him, his face pale and his eyes fierce.
‘As I do my sister’ said Éomer. ‘I swear we will not turn back till they are avenged, in blood….’
Gamling felt a slow, savage anger grow in him. Better to die on the same battlefield as his lord than to return to a cold hall without Théoden, who had been a father to him….

Just as Éomer was about to speak again, they heard hoofbeats approaching and looking round saw a rider clad in the green and gold cloak of the King’s Guard riding across the field towards them. He was covered in dust and blood, but seemed unhurt. His horse was exhausted almost to the point of death, however, and the man himself had a fixed, staring look. Éomer recognised him.

‘Íarnaí!’ he shouted. ‘Where are you going? And where is your éored…?’

At Éomer’s voice Íarnaí looked up as if woken from a dream. He reined in and stared about him at the King’s squadron. Gamling looked keenly at him, for he had never quite trusted Íarnaí. Éomer barked at him;
‘Where are you going, and where are your men?’
‘Slain..’ mumbled Íarnaí. ‘All slain….’
‘How?’ demanded Éomer in a shocked voice.
‘Mumakil came on us, and Easterlings..’
‘Easterlings?’ asked Éomer. He had not seen any Easterlings on the battlefield that day. But Íarnaí nodded
‘Yes my lord, they attacked my squadron…’
‘And only you escaped?’ asked Gamling doubtfully. The men were listening. Íarnaí just looked at him.
‘He has lost his wits in the fighting….’ thought Éomer. ‘His men are somewhere in need of help….’ he turned to Gamling.
‘Take two score Riders, Gamling, and scour the field till you find the missing éored.
I put you in command….’

For all his grief, Gamling felt a small surge of pride to be put in command. One disadvantage of being the King’s Man was he had never been allowed to lead on his own. Without hesitating he bowed and wheeling his horse he trotted through the ranks of mounted men, selecting his two dozen from those he knew to be hardy warriors. Then he led them out in the direction that Íarnaí had come.
‘Find those men, Gamling’ Éomer called to him. ‘For we have need of every warrior and every horse….’

Callanach turned and scanned the battlefield. Had he imagined the voice calling his name?

‘I’m here, Storm…over here.’

He had not imagined it; as quickly as he could Callanach ran to the spot where he had left Líofa, slain as he believed….
‘You are alive!’ he gasped, reaching down to help the Elf sit up. ‘I thought you were dead! You did not answer me, you were cold and still….’

Líofa sighed and reaching down with a shaking hand he pulled aside the tunic he wore to reveal the gilded armour of Lothlórien, pale yellow metal leaves overlapping to form a mail so fine it moulded to the body of the wearer, yet was as strong as the heaviest iron cuirass worn by the orcs…

‘The enemy’s blow winded me’ said Líofa in a low painful voice. ‘And I was badly thrown by my horse. We Elves can leave our bodies for a while, to escape pain or regain our strength. I am sorry I gave you grief, Callanach…but in truth I am badly bruised….’

Callanach was so overjoyed to find his friend still alive that he hardly took in what Líofa was saying. He embraced him, making the Elf wince.
‘Now I am even more bruised…’ he said ruefully.
‘I am sorry, Líofa!’ said Callanach. ‘But I thought you were dead! What joy it is to me that you are all right…..’

Líofa managed a pained smile, then suddenly he stopped smiling and stared at Callanach.
‘What is it?’ faltered the lad. Líofa said in a low voice;
‘Cal, Marfach is here…’
‘Where?’ exclaimed Callanach, springing up and looking around.
‘No, not right here…’ said Líofa. ‘Here, somewhere on the battlefield…’
‘How do you know?’ demanded Callanach.
‘I saw him….somehow, when I was senseless….’

Callanach frowned, but Líofa shook his head.
‘I saw him in my dream, as I closed with death. I saw others too….’
Líofa remembered King Théoden, riding away across the frosty plain with his slain son at his side. He shivered, and looked at Callanach.
'Believe me, Cal. Marfach is here, and he is in danger of death if not already slain. You must find him…’
‘Find him?’ asked Callanach in desperation, looking round the battlefield.
‘But how…?’

Before he could reply, they both heard the sound of galloping horses. Líofa struggled to sit up, and Callanach put a hand to his sword. But it was not the enemy; bearing down on them was a squadron of Riders of Rohan. At their head was Gamling, and beside him was Íarnaí….

Callanach stood up and walked to meet the Rohirrim. Gamling, at their head, was looking round, and he spied the two slain Easterlings. He reined in and said sharply to Íarnaí;
‘I see two Easterlings, and I see a boy, but I see no sign of a fight, and no sign of your éored…’

The other Riders were listening. Callanach, as he came up, said;
‘It looked hopeless, Master Gamling, so they left….’

Gamling sat on his horse, displeasure plain in his face. The other Riders were just as angry. That one of their number had left a boy to die at the hands of the enemy because they were too many to fight was to the Rohirrim the keenest shame…but Íarnaí sat on his horse, his face like stone.

‘How did you beat them off?’ asked Gamling, looking at the slain Easterlings. Callanach, uneasy that his feat of arms had turned into an inquisition, shrugged and said;
‘I slew one and raised doubts in the minds of the others by taunting them. Then their leader tried to kill me and I slew him too. After that they just ran away…’

‘The boy makes it seem like picking blackberries!’ said one of the Rohirrim. The others laughed but it was a mirthless laugh; they had heard what Callanach had told Íarnaí; that he had died and come back from beyond the gates of death. The Rohirrim viewed Callanach with superstitious dread….

On his part, Callanach felt just as uneasy. He guessed what the Rohirrim were thinking..
‘It was no sorcery’ he said in a quiet but steadfast voice. ‘Just the swordcraft taught me by Lord Haldir..’
‘Haldir!’ exclaimed the Riders. Gamling gathered up his reins and smiled.
‘Then there is no mystery to your feat of arms, my boy’ he said in a kind voice.
‘You were taught by the best warrior ever seen, even amongst the sons of Eorl.’

Callanach nodded, relieved that the men’s attention had been drawn away from Íarnaí, for he had no desire to see the man punished. He said to Gamling;
‘I fought to protect my friend, the Elf Líofa, honoured by King Théoden for his singing and playing of the harp. Líofa is alive, but wounded. Could you take him to the City, or somewhere his hurts will be looked after?’

Gamling looked past Callanach to where Líofa lay with his eyes closed, too tired to follow the debate.
‘I was present on the eve of our departure for war’ said Gamling ‘when this harpist played for King Théoden, and well pleased the King was with his music. I will take good care of your friend, master Callanach…’
The boy smiled gratefully, and turned to go.

‘But what about you, Callanach?’ asked Gamling. ‘You are a King’s Man too….’

Callanach stopped, and a look of indecision crossed his face. At last he said to Gamling;
‘I served King Théoden, and hope to serve King Éomer too. But first, I must pay a debt of honour….I must seek out and help one in mortal danger….’
‘But that is work for us all’ said Gamling with a smile. ‘Let us go with you…’

Callanach’s face fell.
‘No, Lord Gamling’ he said ‘For the friend I must help is the hated foe of all the people of Rohan.
He is the Red Dragon….’