The Dragon and the Fox

by Varda

Chapter 76: The Black Hollow

‘Is it worth it, Dúnedain?‘ asked Derufin in a low voice, a grim smile on his weatherbeaten face, his grey eyes scanning the distant roadway that divided the dark wood like a silver ribbon.

Aragorn did not seem to have heard the bowman, but continued to gaze into the keen Northerly wind, seeking to pick out the details of the barren land that stretched away to the dreary grey sky.

Derufin waited patiently. His birthplace was in the South, by the waters of the haunted Morthond, but Aragorn had led them here, to the empty moors between the Shire and Fornost. For here once stood the kingdom of Arnor, and Aragorn was not willing to let it become a fiefdom of Mordor without a struggle...

And there was the matter of keeping safe that land called the Shire, ever dear to Aragorn, even if he seldom entered it, and if he had, he would have startled its inhabitants even more than a legion of orcs. At last Derufin shifted his quiver on his shoulder to signify the need for haste.

‘If we do not go through….‘ said Aragorn, thinking aloud. ‘We must go round, almost ten miles. Whatever left those footprints we saw will be long gone by then and even your skills as a tracker will hardly catch them up before they cross over into the Marches of Angmar. There they will find allies aplenty to help them….‘

The rest of the Dunedain had gathered round, listening. Their faces were stern but fair, their dark hair long and unkempt from campaigning far from houses or towns, but in their grey eyes shone the fire of Numenor. For these were all that was left of the nobility of Arnor, long exiled to Gondor and the cities of the South. But always the North called them home, to fight and to follow their liege lord, Aragorn….

The men of Arnor, however, were ever few, and no more than thirty Rangers gathered to watch Aragorn as he knelt down and put a weatherbeaten hand, calloused from sword and bow, on the damp earth. A footprint was there, barely visible to the eye and perhaps not human. But Aragorn could see it, and laying his palm to the ground, deeply covered with needles from the sparse pines that clung to the peaty soil, he could conjure up in his mind’s eye an orc passing through a mere hour before, defiling through the narrow gap in a thick stand of ancient yews.

Now a keen wind, feeling more of September than of June, sang mournfully through the trees and Aragorn wondered; could this be a trap?

For Aragorn had a sense for such things, which was why he was still alive, even though the Enemy had hunted him long, all his life since he was old enough to know what his birthright was. But sometimes his sight was blocked, as if fear or uncertainty stilled the ancient voices that spoke to him in dream….
‘Well..?’ asked Derufin. Aragorn straightened up and brushed the dirt from his hands.
‘We go on..’ he said, then added ‘with all caution, brothers…’

For not fear of death, but fear of losing some or all of his Rangers held Aragorn back. These were the last of the Númenóreans of the North, and Aragorn was painfully aware of how they had dwindled. As he looked over the band of Rangers, he saw the last of many lines of the men of Westernesse….yet if they did not spend their blood to defend their land, they were nothing worth their mighty ancestors…

‘Would that we had an Elf, to see afar…‘ Derufin said grimly. Aragorn nodded and unslinging his own bow he said;
‘I will go first and circle through the trees. Do you, Derufin and you Dántacht, go forward down the track. Wrap your cloaks round your arms, as some kind of shield, and listen for my whistle. When I am in place, pass the gap…’ He looked round at the others.
‘Do you, men of the North, spread out through the trees, your bows at the ready. Use silence and stealth, for our quarry is fleet and cunning, and there is cover in the yews, grown so thick together…‘

In truth, the yews gave Aragorn pause; the land here to the North of the Shire was a wide expanse of moor and fen, with lonely meres stretching under the iron-grey sky and no sound but the desolate cry of the curlew. But here in this forest the dark red trunks of these ancient trees crowded together to block out light. The wind sighed in their branches and hid any sound of an approaching enemy. A deep carpet of dead pine needless softened all footfalls, and Aragorn remembered the yew was in the wisdom of the Elves the tree of death. A shudder passed through him and for a moment he wished he was in Rivendell. Wished he was again with the sons of Elrond, debating or trying his skill at chess. Or better still, walking in the summer groves with their sister, Arwen.

But it was not the scent of summer flowers clinging to her silken gown that Aragorn smelled now, only the damp, earthy air under the dark yews. A sound like a blackbird guarding its territory gave him to know that Derufin and Dánacht had found the almost hidden road and were striding swiftly down to the gap….

Once, when there was a kingdom of Men in the North, this muddy track had been a broad stone road, repaired and rebuilt by order of the king, bringing travellers to Fornost. Now brambles sprawled over it and fallen trees blocked the way.
‘Do not forget me when you venture into the North….’ said Arwen, letting go of his hand and brushing his cheek with a fleeting kiss soft as a summer evening
’Do not forget me Aragorn….‘

The path descended slowly to the gap in the trees, then steepened so that the yews crowded in on Derufin and he felt a knot form in the pit of his stomach. He felt eyes upon him, but told himself it was his comrades of the Grey Company of Rangers, fanning out through the wood, bows in hand, covering him. He glanced at Dántach, whose name meant The Brave, and caught a wink and a smile from under the grey hood. Dántach shook his cloak back to leave free the hilt of his great broadsword. And he said a silent prayer, for he felt some greater peril was close than they knew….

The two Rangers stepped warily into the narrow gap. For some yards the yews clustered so thickly on both sides as to form a palisade, with only a strip of sullen sky above. Dántach walked forward, his bow in his hand, an arrow notched to the string but despite his courage Derufin hesitated, scanning the trees. His hesitation saved his life, for just then, with a splintering crash, a giant grey form heaved itself through the tightly packed yews and pounced on Dántach, flinging him to the ground and before he could loose an arrow or free his sword, the troll brought a stone-headed axe down on his head, killing the Ranger with one savage blow.

It all passed in a moment but before his next heartbeat Derufin raised his bow and loosed an arrow at the troll. The shaft struck the creature in the side, burying itself almost to the feathers. With a ferocious roar of pain, the beast swung round and aimed his club at the Ranger. Derufin, seeking to avoid the strike, lost his footing and fell on his back.

Deep in the trees, his bow useless in his hand for all the thickly grown yews that impeded his shot, Aragorn waited in agony for the blow that would slay another of his Rangers.

But it never came; instead Aragorn and his men, scattered through the trees, heard a battle cry neither of men or Elves. Words there were in it of an ancient tongue, but not known to them even by distant memory. Straining his eyes to see through the dark wood Aragorn caught a blur of movement, a black cloak and a glint of black orc-armour and long, braided red hair wound into dreadlocks. Then there was the singing sound of a descending blade and a deafening roar of pain, and the troll, with a crashing and splintering, rushed headlong into the dense wood and after charging blindly for a bowshot it at last hurtled into the solid bole of a great yew, gave a long almost pathetic groan and fell to the earth, dead.

The Rangers hurried through the trees to look at the dead troll. It was still twitching and grunting, but its life was fled. Aragorn ran to the pathway, where Derufin was slowly getting to his feet. They both turned and stared at the stranger who waited, a faint smile on his face, the long, Orcish blade in his hand still stained with the black blood of the Troll.

The stranger wore armour composed of lamellar plates, lacquered with black in the fashion of Sauron’s captains. Over it he had a corslet of fine steel engraved with leaves, in the fashion of the Elves of Mirkwood. He had a tunic of grey silk and leggings of fine doeskin bound with silver laces. He wore vambraces of leather emblazoned with the sign of the snake, the sign of the Easterlings. And on the back of his hand was a Red Dragon.

Aragorn looked up at his face in surprise and dismay, for he had heard stories of such a warrior but had thought they were just tales for the fireside and a full tankard. Then he looked into Marfach’s strange eyes, grey flecked with red, and he knew this was no fable. Marfach, a faint smile on his death-pale face shook back his long red dreadlocks and said calmly;
‘From your bearing, you are the Dunedain, I think..’
Aragorn nodded. Marfach then bowed low, and held out his bloodied sword to him.
‘I am yours to command…’
‘Who are you?’ demanded Aragorn. ‘And what are you doing here, in the far North, where none wander but ourselves or the servants of Mordor?‘

Marfach straightened up and looked at Aragorn calmly.
‘I am Marfach..‘ there was a ripple of surprise and indignation among the Rangers but Marfach ignored it.
‘I was tracking the troll, then you began to track me. I waited to see who would catch who…‘

Then he looked down at the dead Ranger and his face clouded over.
‘But I was not quick enough…‘
‘The tracks were yours?‘ asked Aragorn. Marfach nodded, then said;
‘But you are not alone; a great force of orcs is before you, and more behind. Turn South, towards that land you guard, the Shire, and avoid them in the Old Forest. They will not follow you there…‘

Aragorn said nothing, trying to gather his thoughts. What Marfach said might be true; he sensed other things in these woods besides a dead troll and a strange red-haired warrior. Besides, for some reason, he believed he could trust Marfach. This time, at least….he went to reply but before he could, as if sensing what he was about to say, Marfach spoke;
‘This wood, Aragorn, is called Imléan Dubh, the Black Hollow. Remember that name….’

Aragorn turned away from Callanach and walked over to look at the body of Gothmog, stretched in death, headless and covered in dust. Under the black armour the corpse seemed to be shrinking, decreasing, withering before his eyes. There was a hissing and crackling, like a fire in winter, and the armour, and the leather arm guards and metalled kilt suddenly collapsed in, as if they held nought but air, sank and flattened out, till they encased nothing but air, and all that remained of Gothmog was a circle of burned grass where his severed head had lain and a handful of dust under a suit of black armour.

Callanach stared in horror, but did not speak. He looked up at Aragorn, and saw that the grey weariness and cold smell of death that had clung to Aragorn as he led the Army of the Dead had gone, and Aragorn looked like a living man, warm and breathing. Then, as if suddenly remembering something, he turned and walked over to where Marfach lay.

For a long moment Aragorn looked at Marfach. He took in the Haradrim armour and the emblems of a chieftain of the Southrons. The black scarf round his upper arm to signify a leader of a squadron of Mumakil. At last Marfach stirred, opened his eyes and looked up at Aragorn, who said;
‘Is this how you keep your oath to me, Marfach?‘

Callanach drew closer, not daring to intervene, but fearful for Marfach. Aragorn looked at him and said;
‘Young Ranger, you choose your friends even more unwisely than you choose your enemies….‘
‘He has done no wrong, my lord Aragorn…‘ ventured Callanach.
‘Done no wrong!’ cried Aragorn ‘he has induced you, a guard of the King of Rohan, to desert! To abandon your place at the king’s side…’
Callanach bowed his head in shame. Aragorn stormed on;
‘And he has led our enemies against us in battle!
‘Not very well, Dunedain….’ croaked Marfach. ‘I prevailed on them to ….run away…at the earliest opportunity…‘
Aragorn shook his head in disgust. Marfach said;
‘Elessar, the Elves have served you with the bow, and men with the sword. I served you after my fashion, as I have served you before…..’
Aragorn raised his head and looked at Marfach, listening carefully. Marfach said quietly.

‘Remember Black Hollow?’