The Dragon and the Fox

by Varda

Chapter 8: The White Death

After the second arrow he felt no pain, and after the third he could no longer stand, and slid to his knees, no fight left in him now except the battle for breath.

His sword, its bright blade stained with orc blood, lay on the ground in front of him, but he had no strength to lift it. All around him lay sprawled the orcs he had slain, some lying at the feet of the stone king who had been set to guard this path to the river many ages before, in the great days of Gondor of the Kings. That same Gondor he had disgraced, when he broke his oath to protect Frodo...

Boromir beat back thoughts of Frodo and thought instead of the other hobbits, Merry and Pippin, standing beside him rooted in grief and horror. He felt more pity for them than for himself, for this to him was no more than a warrior could expect, but they knew nothing of war. He wanted say to tell them he had tried to save them but he had no breath left and anyway when he looked up into their eyes, level with his now, he knew that they knew too.

He felt cold, and the sweat ran down his face in icy drops. The light was fading, but he could see the Uruk-hai waiting until it was safe to come down from the hill and finish him off. Some of them he had wounded and they were not willing to risk his great bright sword again. Their tusks gleamed in the dim light, and he remembered that they often savaged their opponents and drank their blood. For himself he no longer cared, but for the hobbits....

He had not seen the archer who had struck him down, but now advancing through the twilit trees he saw a great Uruk bearing a black curved bow and he knew this was their leader and his executioner. The ground, covered with a deep layer of golden and grey leaves seemed to tremble under his iron-shod feet, or was it the failing beat of his heart...?

"Captain Faramir! Captain Faramir!"

Faramir came awake with a start. He was drenched with icy sweat, and passed a shaking hand over his eyes and sat up. The pounding of his heart receded, and with it the dream. He looked up. Bending over him was one of his men. He tried to speak calmly, "What is it?"

"I'm sorry to wake you, Captain, but....well there is something you had better see...."

"Very well, I'm coming."

Faramir tried to shake off the nightmare. Three times it had visited him, and now he could not doubt that this was indeed how his brother had died. A great shadow closed on Faramir's heart. "What oath did you break, my brother? What tempted you past

The Ranger was staring at him. Faramir said, "Go along, I will follow you...."

The Ranger turned and with a look of concern went back into the night. Faramir knew that look. His men held him in that regard only fighting men can have for a leader who is as careful of their lives as his own. But they were also afraid, for Faramir was now their only hope, the last of his line now that his older brother and the heir to the Steward's throne Boromir was feared dead. In a campaign full of peril Faramir had never received so much as a scratch. How much longer could his luck hold?

Faramir was not near his refuge of Henneth Anun, but far out among the willow groves and alder brakes of the Andúin in pursuit of a great host of orcs which had left the river and turned inland whilst he and his men were tracking them. Now Faramir stood among the shadows of the willows and with his Rangers gazed in astonishment at a great arc of fire curving across the hillside above the treeline, the flames leaping high into the night sky.

"The bracken is burning," said one of his men.

"Not by itself," said Faramir. "Someone set that fire."

"But why?" asked the men.

Faramir thought for a moment. "It might have nothing to do with us, or they might know we are here and this is an attempt to draw us into the hills and trap us. Either way we will not move till daylight. Then we will have the advantage." Faramir ordered the watch to be doubled and went back to rest, as it was hours before dawn. But sleep would not come.

The morning wind brought a light rain, and with it a fine ash from the burnt bracken on the mountainside. Mist like smoke rolled over the Andúin and the dark waters looked grim and chilly. Below the trees, unseen among the willows along the waterside, Faramir raised his head as if listening, feeling the fine rain on his face, cool and clean. The wind bore the sweet scents of Ithilien, pine and myrtle and wild sage, but it also bore the smell of the dead fires, and Faramir wondered...all along the hillside a great swathe of bracken smouldered, the charred stems of bushes white among the black ash. Faramir gazed at it in silence, as baffled as his own men: this was no sortie of theirs, yet orcs feared fire, so it was unlikely to be the work of the Black Land.

The morning was damp and chilly. Faramir drew his cloak about him and shivered. The dream was fresh in his mind. Although Boromir had been the elder son, Faramir's face was not that of a young man. His long fair hair was shot through with silver and around his eyes were fine lines caused by looking into the sun. He had the weatherbeaten look of one long accustomed to hiding and hunting in open countryside yet he bore himself like a king. He gazed across the river with a cold determined look. This was the land of Ithilien, which was dear to him, and he had worn out his youth defending it. But now every day another little portion of this sweet-smelling country was lost to the Dark Power, and the dread day drew near that he must return to Minas Tirith, a city of suspicion and despair, and face his father, mourning Boromir and ever asking questions about his death. Questions to which Faramir did not know the answers, though from these dreams he guessed much. What oath, brother...?

* * *

"What are you?"

The orcs huddled on a spit of land beside the chilly waters of the river. The moon was down and there was no light but for the faint glimmer of starlight. Far out on the sandbank no-one could approach them so for the moment they were safe. Some had lost their weapons in their flight from the fire, but they were still armoured like great insects, crouched in the shallows, cowed and afraid. They had lost their leader, and now Gréim was their captain. He boxed the helmet of the nearest orc and repeated,

"What are you?"

"Fools," mumbled the orcs.

"Fools, cowards, carrion!" shouted Gréim. "Who would think you served the Lord of the Earth? You are as stupid as that homemade scum cooked up by Saruman, the White Death of Isengard, the Great Oathbreaker. We serve the Eye, which sees all and which all see, burned into their minds like fire. We will soon rule this river, this Ithilien, all the earth."

He looked around at the orcs in rage and shouted, "Why did you run away?"

"There was a great host of the enemy, Rangers, or worse, some great Elf-warriors...," ventured one of the orcs.

Gréim batted him on the helmet. "Great host! There was one warrior, only one!" he shouted.

The orcs raised their heads and muttered and looked at each other. "How do you know?" grumbled a voice from the back.

Gréim stood up. He was taller than the rest of the orcs and his black greaves and breastplate engraved with the Red Eye gleamed in the starlight. "Because I saw him."

The orcs murmuring grew and some of them stood up.

"While you were running away I hung back, and I saw him. He set the fires then shot a few of you and you thought it was a whole army. It was one miserable warrior!"

But the orcs were suspicious. "But what was he?" one asked. "A Ranger or an Elf, or what?"

Gréim suddenly sat on his heels and looked down the river with a faint smile on his broad leathery face. He extended his hand, the skin calloused and yellow. On the back, almost concealed by grime, was a tattoo: a red dragon, its coils extending up the lean sinewy arm and its tail gripped in its fangs. Gréim said, "He had this, the mark of Sauron. He was one of us. He broke his oath to the Lord of the Earth."

As the orcs fell to arguing amongst themselves Gréim began to laugh, "No-one breaks their oath to Sauron!"