The Dragon and the Fox

by Varda

Chapter 79: An Enemy in our Midst

Had the request come from anyone but Gandalf, Aragorn would have refused it. Bree was a long way to the South, and in this waning of the year he and his Rangers were hard pressed to keep the Enemy from overwhelming the lands that lay within the Great Dyke. Never had the forces of Sauron been so active as in these last few months. It was almost as if they were preparing for some great onslaught…..the last thing Aragorn wanted to do was leave his men to fight without him while he journeyed south on some wild goose chase….

And yet…the tone of Gandalf’s letter was urgent, even distracted. Aragorn could hardly believe it came from the wizard himself, usually so calm and unbothered by even the most alarming events. Seated in his tent, the autumn storm drumming on the wet hide stretched over thin poles just above his head, Aragorn brushed raindrops from his sleeves and bent his head to re-read the letter by the grey light of dawn….

‘…it is imperative that I meet the hobbit Frodo Baggins at the Prancing Pony in Bree, as I promised him earlier this year. But it is also vital that I go to Isengard to enlist the aid of my superior on the White Council, Saruman the Wise. We badly need his advice, Aragorn. Yet some feeling that I cannot quite identify makes me suspect that my visit to Isengard might take longer than I foresee… ‘

‘Gandalf is worried, perhaps even afraid…’ thought Aragorn to himself, raising his eyes from the letter to scan the bare landscape outside his tent. Veils of rain hid the bleak moorland that once in the dawn of Middle Earth made up the Northern Kingdom of Arnor. Hidden in the mists was the site of the ancient capital of Fornost. Aragorn, last of the line of the Kings of Arnor, bent his head again to the letter with a worried frown.

‘…and so, my dear Aragorn, Dunedain, honoured of Elves and men, it is my request that you take on your guise as Strider and seek out the Inn of the Prancing Pony in Bree on the date I have named, and for some day or two before and after, and keep an eye out for this Frodo Baggins. There are not many hobbits in Bree, and even among them, you will easily spot Frodo; he is a fair cheerful little fellow with apple cheeks and sky blue eyes and a curly head. He will be travelling as Mr.Underhill, and will be accompanied by a stolid but somewhat mistrustful hobbit, his gardener, Samwise Gamgee…..’

Aragorn smiled to himself.
‘Just what I need; two hobbits!’ he thought with a mental groan. He got to his feet, putting the letter inside his leather tunic, and stepped out of the tent.

At once a biting wind tugged at his cloak and whipped cold rain into his face. Through the squall, figures walked towards him, holding their horses by the bridles. One led Aragorn’s horse, Roheryn, up to his tent. These steeds were not unlike the men who owned them; rough-coated and grim, yet noble and full of sombre courage. The Rangers who gathered in the rain were the Grey Company, last remnant of the Numenoreans of Arnor. Decades of war had reduced them to this ragged fellowship, gaunt and weary from years of guarding the marches of the North.

When the Rangers stood round Aragorn, a similarity between the men and their master could also be clearly seen; all were tall and dark-haired with grey eyes and faces fair but stern, as if hewn from the very granite of the Northern Mountains. They were wrapped in long grey or green cloaks and bore great swords and on their left shoulders they wore a brooch fashioned like a rayed star.

Aragorn struck his tent and with quick, practised movements he shook the rain from the material and strapped it behind Roheryn’s saddle. Then when all the Rangers were gathered round him, Aragorn spoke to them, shouting to be heard over the sound of the wind;

‘I have been summoned to the South, to the borders of the Shire, and I purpose to leave at once….’

Among the Rangers there were some raised eyebrows, but no-one protested; Aragorn’s judgment was never disputed by the warriors of the North.

‘Gandalf the Grey calls me…’ went on Aragorn ‘…..and I know from old that only the direst need would cause him to summon me so far…’
Aragorn looked around at his men and shook his head with a sad smile;
‘I must leave you, Rangers of the Grey Company, just when you are in greatest danger from The Enemy. Perhaps I will not return, for now the War in the East is swiftly overtaking us, and I might find battle where I cannot avoid it, and not even the wisest can say who now will win. If we never meet again, do you still remember Arnor, and your oath….’

There was a murmur of acknowledgment, and the tall,cloaked warriors bowed or raised their unsheathed swords in a salute. Then they turned away to mount their horses and return to their posts of guard on the Northern frontier.

As they did so, one among them stepped up to Aragorn, who greeted him with an embrace and a smile of pleased recognition.

‘Feolchu, my old friend!` he said `I have not seen or spoken with you for many days…such is the way in these sad times….’

Then Aragorn’s eye fell on a boy standing awkwardly behind Feolchu. A slender lad not more than fourteen or fifteen and small for his age, yet he had his father’s long black hair and frank, grey-green eyes. Seeing Aragorn looking at him, he bowed low.

‘Who is this, Wolf?’ asked Aragorn, using Feolchu’s other name. The Ranger smiled.
‘This, my Lord Aragorn, is my son, Callanach, also known as Storm. I ask your permission to take him to war with me…..let him join the Grey Company….’

Aragorn looked around the field of the Pelennor; the Army of the Dead were fading away across the battlefield, their duty to the King of Gondor done. Soon, they would sue to be released from their living death and Aragorn must fulfill his oath to the King of the Dead, and take up the duties to the living that this day’s victory had laid upon him.

On all sides the Pelennor stretched, encumbered with the ruin of battle. Mumakil like great grey mountains lumbered away bellowing into the distance, the wicker and canvas castles on their backs from which Haradrim archers had rained arrows down on the Rohirrim were now torn and splintered and hanging off their backs. Their riders were slain or trampled into the morass of battle. Closer to Aragorn, those Rohirrim cavalry who had survived the crushing onslaught of the mumakil gave chase to the Haradrim, Easterlings, orcs and mountain men who still survived. It gave Aragorn no joy to see that none of these enemies would surrender; they all fought to the last, fearing the Dark Lord Sauron more than they feared the men of the West…. .

Aragorn turned back, and looked at Callanach, still standing before him. He remembered the last time he had met this boy, in the North, at his father’s side. Then, Callanach had looked Aragorn defiantly in the eye, but secretly he had been terrified that the Dunedain leader would deem him too young and small to go to war, and would inflict on him the terrible disgrace of being sent home. Only Callanach was of Arnor, and he had no home but the bleak moorlands of the North and no family but the stern Rangers who guarded its borders.

Now, even to Aragorn’s eye, Callanach was a different being. Not that he was much taller or stronger in body than when Aragorn had seen him last. But he was no longer young. His dark hair had threads of silver in it and his face had those lines usually left by long years of sorrow or pain. And in Callanach`s grey eyes there was a look not merely of one much older, but of one no longer quite belonging to the earth at all….

Aragorn, who had learned in his long years as a wanderer among strangers to be quick to gauge those he met from their face and manner and dress, looked closely at Callanach’s clothes. The lad was clad in bright gilded leaf-mail such as Aragorn had never seen before except in Lothlorien. He wore a sword belt about his waist with gold leaves imprinted on the leather, and Aragorn knew that they were Mallorn leaves. The sword which went with the belt lay in pieces on the ground, shattered by Gothmog’s scimitar, but still Aragorn could see it was a Galadhrim blade. And on the boy’s armour, in the middle of the chest, was an enamel roundel bearing the colours of Queen Galadriel, the gold and green of the Mallorn and the blue and silver of a starlit sky.
Only those who enjoyed the favour of the Lady herself were allowed to wear such insignia..

The bright spring sun had gone in and a squall was sweeping the battlefield. Light rain, cool and fresh and driven by a strong West wind, doused the burning wains and the torn and blackened banners. It pattered on the armour of the slain and washed away the blood, black or red. Aragorn raised his face to the sky and let the raindrops wash the filth of battle from his skin. More than that was washing away; he looked across the plain and saw the city of Minas Tirith emerge from the mist like a white sail emerging from a storm at sea.

In that moment, Aragorn knew there was now nothing to stop him from taking the throne of Gondor. After the Battle of the Pelennor Fields he could stand unashamed in the company of Isildur and Elendil, his mighty ancestors, if any still lived to compare them when the fighting was over.

He sighed; his life had passed the point of no return. From now on, he was a king, or he was nothing.

Then Aragorn looked at Callanach, as if at a reminder of his past. The lad stood before his lord, the rain dripping from his long black hair, and Aragorn said to him;
‘I am right glad to meet you again, Callanach. I can see from your face and from the strange armour you wear that much has befallen you since you left the North. In that, we are both alike…..’

At this Callanach managed a wan smile. Aragorn went on;
‘I can see too that you are not the lad I knew in the North. In your eyes is a grief I cannot fathom, and I know without your telling me that your father Feolchu The Wolf is no longer alive. I can see too that you want to say something else to me besides thanks for delivering you from this foe…’
And Aragorn nodded at the headless carcass of Gothmog, sprawled in death at the lad’s feet.

‘What is it you want of me, Callanach son of Feolchu?’ Aragorn asked softly ‘You must ask me now, for soon, I must see to the needs of others….’
And Aragorn nodded towards the distant city of Minas Tirith.

Callanach looked at Aragorn for some moments in agonised hesitation, then blurted out;
‘I have a great pardon to beg of you, Dunedain…spare Marfach’s life!’

For some moments Aragorn did not understand the boy’s words. Then he glanced about and saw lying on the ground not far from where they stood a thin, long-limbed figure in ancient and rusted mail of Gondorian design and an Elvish cloak. Aragorn recognised the long red dreadlocks and the lean, angular frame, somewhere between man and Elf, of the Red Dragon.

Callanach pointed to Marfach and said.
‘My lord, the Rohirrim will kill him if you do not pronounce his pardon. Lord Aragorn, please spare Marfach….’

Aragorn stared at Marfach, and his heart was kindled to anger. The creature was covered with blood and dust, and unable to rise, but Aragorn could not find it in him to pardon him, not here where so many brave and loyal men had perished.

‘You lie in the dust, Marfach, where you belong!’ he said angrily
‘Twice I spared you, and twice you vowed allegiance to me. This is my reward; only treachery, and betrayal…’

Marfach turned his head to look up at Aragorn. The strange red eyes were hooded as always, and revealed nothing of Marfach’s thoughts. But a smile twisted his face.
‘For what it is worth, Dunedain…’ he said. ‘I was true to my oath to you, as far as I could be….’
‘You dare to judge what is true and what is not!’ answered Aragorn sharply. He would have said more, but then he saw the look of pain on Callanach’s face. Aragorn spoke to him;
‘You have fought well in this battle, Storm, and earned the thanks and love of Elves and men…’ He placed his hands on the boy’s shoulders and went on;

‘You are one of the Dunedain, Callanach. You are all that is left of the nobility of Arnor; you are a Prince of the North. If this war can be won and Gondor saved, you will be a Prince of Gondor too. Will you be a wayward prince? Will I have rebels even before I have a kingdom?
Do not risk everything to stand by this…’ Aragorn searched for a word; in truth, not even the Elves knew what Marfach was. Aragorn ended lamely; ‘…traitor!’

‘Will you allow me to speak?’ asked Callanach. Aragorn nodded.
‘My lord…’ said Callanach ‘…I do not believe Marfach betrayed your trust. He was forced to lead the army of the Haradrim. He would have been slain had he refused, and he thought he could better serve you alive than dead. He weakened the enemy by persuading many of the men of Harad to turn back from the battle and return to their own land. He took wounds in combat with their great captain, Gothmog, ….’

Aragorn listened, his head down and his face like stone. Eomer was reining in not far from where they stood. The city of Minas Tirith was waiting. Some distance away, the familiar figures of Legolas and Gimli could be seen returning. The Elf had been carried away on the back of a Mumak he had attacked, and Gimli had lost track of time and place hewing orc necks.

Aragorn had no time for this, and yet Callanach’s earnest intercession on Marfach’s behalf had caught his attention, so restraining his impatience, he heard him out...
‘Marfach has been found among the enemy ranks, I cannot deny that’ admitted Callanach
‘But he has saved the lives of many of your people….’
Callanach fell silent then, not knowing what more to say, and wanting to give place to Eomer as he strode up.

Eomer dismounted stiffly from his great grey charger; even for this mighty warrior, the day’s fighting had exacted a high price. He walked quickly over to Aragorn and bowed to the King of Gondor. Aragorn placed one hand on his sword and leaned on it and returned the bow.
‘Well met, my Lord Aragorn!’ cried Eomer, leaning on his sword in turn.
‘I am right glad to see you still alive!’ replied Aragorn. ‘Eomer son of Eomund, lord of the Mark!’

Eomer smiled; he was dashed with the blood of many foes, and worn out with fighting, but in his face there was a look of fierce elation. Just then his eye fell on Marfach. He said quickly to Aragorn.
‘My lord, this one of the enemy I pardoned….’
Aragorn looked at him in astonishment; Eomer appeared ashamed....

`How can I explain what happened to Aragorn?` thought Eomer. How could he tell this leader he trusted and admired that he had engaged Marfach in single combat and that the creature had fought with great honour, and had beaten Eomer but had spared his life. And that then, Eomer had tricked and wounded Marfach……

Eomer said to Aragorn;
‘I met him in single combat, and he fought with honour. I overcame him by a trick and wounded him. I thought he was dying, so I pardoned him. Do not now make a liar of me by condemning him….’

Behind Aragorn there was a sigh of relief from Callanach. Aragorn looked again at Marfach, this time with a kind of wonder…..

He had been told that Marfach was an Elf, one of those taken by Sauron, tortured in Mordor and bent to the Dark Lord’s will. The Rohirrim believed he was a Dunlending, and for many years he had led the ragged and desperate men of the Western mountains in their bitter war against the Rohan who had displaced them from the plains of the Mark. Certainly, Aragorn recognised Marfach as a leader, and he knew that even among the wild and uncouth Dunlendings he exerted a powerful authority. It was they who had named him the Red Dragon. But why was it that men of courage and honour would plead for the life of such a creature?

Aragorn sheathed his sword and stepped over to Marfach.

‘You have many enemies, Marfach, but today it seems they are outvoted….’
Callanach closed his eyes in relief, but Aragorn went on;
‘However, I do not believe that you kept your promises. I think, Marfach, that you are just clever enough not to be caught….’

Marfach kept his strange red eyes on Aragorn’s face. He inclined his head.
‘My life is in your hands, Lord King….’

There was silence. The Rohirrim following Eomer had gathered round and were eyeing Marfach with loathing. Even if he spared him, Aragorn thought, how long would he live among so many former enemies? He spoke abruptly.
‘Very well, Marfach. If you can rise to your feet and walk, you are pardoned..’

There was a gasp of astonishment from the Rohirrim, and the start of a protest from Callanach. But Aragorn silenced them all.
‘Let him get up unaided, and he can follow us to Minas Tirith, and serve in our army…’

Marfach gazed up at Aragorn and a faint smile spread over his pale face. He raised himself on his elbow and tried to get his feet under him, but he did not have the strength. Callanach protested.
‘My Lord, he is wounded, let me help him up…’
‘No!’ Aragorn almost shouted. To himself he thought; ‘no man could take such a wound as Eomer gave him and live. If he rises, he is not human. Perhaps an Elf, perhaps something of Sauron’s. But not a man….’

Marfach was clawing at the dust, trying to get up. He kept one arm pressed to his wounded side. After some effort, he raised himself onto his hands and paused for breath.

It was not without cause that the Elves had called Marfach Crioga, the Brave. He felt a greater pain than he had known even in Mordor, but he knew that if he did not get up now, all hope of serving Aragorn with honour would be lost, and he would never see Callanach or Liofa again. Ignoring the pain, he pushed himself up onto his hands and knees.

He looked about desperately. All around lay the slain of the battle, their weapons lying by their sides. Just at Marfach’s hand was a sword of Rohan. Its owner lay dead not far away, his bright fair hair dabbled with his own red blood; he had been crushed to death by the Mumakil. Marfach reached out and seized his sword.

An angry murmur ran through the Rohirrim, but Marfach sat back on his heels and tugging out a fold of his grey Elven cloak he ran the hem up and down the fine steel blade, cleaning it of blood and dirt.

The sword was a fine weapon made by the best weapon-smiths of Rohan. It had a plain straight hilt engraved with a pattern of lozenges, and in the cross of each design was set a red stone, a tiny garnet. The pommel was also a crosspiece, hatched and inlaid with silver. It was a weapon such as a prince of Rohan might bear.

Marfach heard the expression of outrage from the Rohirrim. He finished cleaning the blade then held the handle out to Eomer.

‘My Lord of the Mark…’ he said in a strong voice. ‘..this is the weapon of one of your chieftains. I have need of a sword, having lost mine in battle. The swords of your dead lie all over the Pelennor Field. They will never all be found or returned to the halls of the warriors who bore them. They will rust here till the grass and earth cover them. Let me take one of them and use it to avenge its owner!’

The Rohirrim called out, arguing among themselves. Eomer held up his hand, his face pale.
‘Silence!’ then he said to Marfach.
‘It is not permitted for any to bear the sword of a slain warrior of the Mark, save his own son. But ….’ And Eomer looked sadly about him ‘…there are many warriors of Rohan here who will never go home, nor have they sons to claim their blades. I do not do it willingly, but I grant you the right to take this sword, and to bear it in the service of the King. ‘

Marfach inclined his head, then placing the tip of the sword in the hard dry earth, he gripped the handle and putting all his weight on the weapon, he raised himself from the ground. Swaying slightly, he held up the sword to Aragorn and bowed again.
‘My Lord King, I offer you my sword and beg that I be allowed to serve you again, and that I be known by my Elvish name, Crioga.…’

Standing some distance away, Legolas watched with a face pale with anger.
` Mallaithe`he muttered fiercely under his breath.
`What are you saying, Legolas?`asked Gimli tetchily. `You know I don`t ken Elvish….`
`I said `Cursed``replied the Elf. `It is the name all Elves call Marfach, for that is what he is….`

‘Once again, he outwits us’ thought Aragorn. ‘Now I know he is not a mortal man, for no man could have survived that wound. The worst of it is, I don’t think he is an Elf either….at least, not any more…’

Aragorn turned to Callanach.

‘Very well…’ he said. ‘I grant pardon to this….Crioga. But only on condition that he enters your service. You will be responsible for his conduct, Storm…’

Callanach shook his head.
‘My Lord Aragorn!’ he protested. ‘I do not want Marf…Crioga as a servant! He is free….’
‘I did not say he was your servant’ interrupted Aragorn, beginning to walk towards the horse that one of the Rohirrim held ready for him.
‘…on the contrary; in one sense, you are his.’
Callanach looked bemused. Aragorn smiled wryly.
‘I release him into your keeping, and you will be responsible for what he does. He is not your servant; he is your prisoner.’

Callanach looked aghast. Aragorn gathered up the reins of the mount that was brought forward for him and swung himself into the saddle. He leaned down to speak to Callanach.
‘Listen, Storm. Marfach is neither man nor Elf, neither friend nor foe. I know not if the shadow of Mordor still lies on him. I have pardoned him, in hope that this time, he will prove true at last….`

The Rohirrim set off at a gallop towards Minas Tirith; they had yet to bear the body of their slain king, Theoden, in honour into the city. Aragorn said;
‘Marfach is your charge, now, Cal. It is a heavy burden, I know….’
Callanach looked up and saw a twinkle in Aragorn’s eye. He added;
‘…but it is nothing that a prince of Arnor cannot bear….’

As Aragorn rode away, Legolas urged his horse up to ride beside him. Gimli clung on behind and the Elf leaned over and said to Aragorn;
`You have made a grave mistake, Aragorn. Marfach is no longer an Elf, if he ever was. He is some monster of Sauron` have let an enemy into our midst....`