The Dragon and the Fox

by Varda

Chapter 80: The Great Enemy

Aragorn entered the inn of The Prancing Pony cautiously, glancing around the dark, dripping street outside before he closed the door behind him.

He kept the hood of his cloak pulled up and bent his head, for most of the customers of the inn were hardly as tall as Aragorn`s shoulder, and the lintel was too low for him to enter without stooping. When he was inside, he paused with his hand on the latch, peering into the reek of smoke about him; it was his custom to make sure a place was safe to enter before he shut himself in, and even in a tavern, he could not lay aside his wary Ranger`s habits..

The Prancing Pony was the largest and most popular inn in the town of Bree. But that small hamlet had seen its prosperity dwindle as the war drew closer, and the Pony had known better days. Its whitewashed walls, dark yellow with smoke from the cooking fires and the long clay pipes of the patrons, needed fresh paint, and the ceiling beams sagged. But judging from the loud bursts of laughter and the dull scraping of an out-of-tune fiddle in the common room, the tavern was still popular, if only with those who had not the means or the will to go somewhere better.

As the times were somewhat lawless, the innkeeper, Barliman Butterbur, kept his station at a long counter by the door, the better to get a good look at any traveller entering his establishment. Butterbur was a barrel-shaped man with a red face always shining with perspiration and a bald head covered by a grimy cap. When he heard the door softly closed he turned and seeing the figure clad in a Ranger`s cloak with hood up he frowned and laid two plump hands on the wooden counter.
`I`d as soon you found somewheres else to have your sup of ale and bit of dinner, my friend….`he said in a gruff voice, his eyes, watery from the smoke, shooting to and fro as if seeking some moral assistance from his potboy Nob. `…your kind aren`t welcome `ere….`

At these words the figure raised a lean, weatherbeaten hand and pulled back the hood.
`You would hardly put me out on a night like this, would you Barliman?' asked Aragorn.

The innkeeper gawped at the face of the Ranger, as did half the smoke-filled room, their pots of ale suspended halfway to their mouths, which hung wide open.
`Strider!` gasped Butterbur. `I never thought….well, of course I didn`t mean…but you have to understand, master, there are strange folks about these days, and you can`t be too careful….`

In haste now to show the tall, cloaked man some hospitality and erase any bad impression his rude welcome had made, Butterbur raised a hinged section of the counter and taking Aragorn`s arm, he led the Ranger along a narrow passage into a wide, low-ceilinged, stuffy room where a great fire blazed in a massive fireplace. A few drinkers sat at the half-dozen tables talking quietly and finishing off their supper of beef and carrots. Barliman indicated a stool in a nook of the fireplace.
`Why not take your ease there, Strider? You can get yourself dry, and I will send Nob in to you with a tankard of ale and some hot stew. Will you…er….by any chance be staying the night…?`

Aragorn shook the rain from his cloak and smiled. In one way, he did not blame Barliman. The innkeeper, like all the people of Bree, had suffered from the depradations of the war, and were tired and suspicious of rough, dangerous travellers passing through their village. They especially distrusted the Rangers, whom they associated with the ever- closer war.

But Aragorn also resented the fat tavernkeeper`s suspicions. He and his men kept the town safe, if not prosperous, and for that they had little thanks. Yet in his heart Aragorn knew it was not the fault of men like Barliman. Others, paid by the Enemy, had poisoned the hearts of the people against him and his Rangers….

`No, Innkeeper…`Aragorn replied. `I will not be staying the night. Just bring me a pot of your best ale and a pouch of Southfarthing for my pipe. I will sit here and cause no trouble at all….`

Barliman bowed hastily and turned and scuttled away. Aragorn shook out the wet folds of his cloak to dry at the fire and settled himself down on the bench in the corner of the inglenook. He took out his pipe and making pretence of tapping out the ash on the hearthstone, he studied the other customers in the common room.

He looked first at the one or two hobbits seated with their noses in their dinner bowls. There were still a few hobbits living in Bree, and Aragorn at once recognised these as native to the town. There were also a half a dozen large, burly men clad in rough homespun cloaks whom the Ranger knew to be drovers resting over on their journey along the Old Road. And at a table almost exactly opposite him there was a tall figure bent over his tankard, clad in a long black cloak and with a wide-brimmed hat pulled down over his eyes.

At once Aragorn found himself unwilling to be seen by this man, so as he sat down by the fire he almost casually pulled his hood up over his head so as to keep his face hidden.
A few minutes later Barliman hurried in with a tankard full of ale and a pouch of pipeweed. He laid them on the hearthstone beside Aragorn and when the Ranger went to dig out a coin he waved his hand.
‘You can pay me some other time…..’ but just as Barliman was about to say the name
‘…Strider’ Aragorn put a finger to his lips and the innkeeper just finished lamely;
‘….master…’ and turned and scurried out of the common room.

Aragorn took a deep draught from his tankard and settled back against the stones of the great chimneybreast, letting his weary limbs thaw out at the flames. Against the narrow, horn windows the rain drummed loudly, but the cloaked figure on the other side of the room sat in dry clothes, unmarked by even a splash of mud.

Aragorn had walked many miles that day in cold rain and biting wind. Now the heat made him drowsy. Even the lord of the Rangers could know fatigue. The murmur of voices in the hot, low-ceilinged room became the buzz of bees on a summer evening….

‘Why have you left the hall?’ asked Arwen, suddenly appearing in the doorway of the bower that was half-hidden by the summer leaves of the gardens of Rivendell.
‘My father has asked for you…’
Aragorn shook his head and stood up. He looked uncomfortable in his pale blue silk tunic embroidered with silver. He went to leave the bower, but Arwen placed a hand on his chest.

He stopped. The Elf-lady touched the silver threads on the collar of the tunic. Her touch was gentle, but Aragorn started as violently as if it had been the point of an enemy’s dagger. Arwen said to him;
‘My lord, what is it you fear?’

Aragorn shook his head and turned back to the seat hidden in the cool shade of the bower. For a long time he did not answer, and Arwen was about to ask again when he said, in a low voice;
‘For myself, nothing. But for you….’

Arwen took two swift steps to his side and placing her white hand on his shoulder she turned him to face her. Her hand was strong, and her face was set and no longer smiling.
‘Do not think of that, Aragorn! You are not responsible for what path I choose….’
‘But if I am the means of your losing your home, your people and even your father…not to speak of your eternal dwelling in the West….’

Aragorn stopped as if he could not bear to go on. Arwen put her hand on his arm and shook it with surprising force.
‘It is my decision! Is it not enough that I must war with my father to have mastery over my own life? Must I also fight with the one I love, and for whom I would give up family, friends and life eternal itself? Can you not take love as it is given, and question it not…?’

Aragorn bent his head.
‘No, gentle Arwen. I fear I cannot. That which I have denied for many years now forces itself to my mind; I have a duty to this land, one which goes beyond guarding its borders. I am all that is left of Gondor’s kings, Arwen. I must act now, or sink into obscurity as war destroys all our world. I cannot take you with me, nor can I ask you to sacrifice everything for one who might leave and never come back….’

Arwen gazed at Aragorn, and suddenly a smile broke over her fair face.
‘I never knew you to be less than a king, even when you would not allow such a thing to be spoken. I would not hold you back from claiming what is your own….’
‘But if I fall…’ said Aragorn desperately
‘If you fall, we will all fall’ replied Arwen. She took his hand in her own.
‘This is the hand that holds all our fates. In it is resides our strength. I do not want a hiding place beyond the sea. I want love here, however much it stands in peril. Will you not answer my love?’

Aragorn gazed at her, and a forlorn look overcame him. The memory of the empty wastes of the North came back to him with all the longings he had endured there. He reached out a hand and drew the Elf-princess to him and kissed her hungrily, holding her close to him till she had to lean backwards against the wooden wall of the bower. As he did so, a voice spoke in his heart;
‘Wherever you wander, in whatever battle you are embroiled, I will be with you, for all time….’

‘There he is, Frodo Baggins!’

The speaking, in fact shouting aloud of the name Aragorn had been instructed to find in all secrecy brought the Ranger awake with a jolt. He started violently, but controlled his urge to leap up and draw his sword. He looked about the room, and saw, for the first time, a group of hobbits who must have come into the inn after he dozed off. One was standing at a table, tankard in hand, regaling a rough-looking group of drinkers with a hobbit song. He was pointing to another of the hobbits, a fair, dark-haired fellow with wide blue eyes who was sitting frozen in horror as his companion raised his cup to him.

‘Aye, there he sits…’ said the carousing hobbit, shaking his tankard and slopping some ale froth onto the boards of the table. The dark-haired hobbit darted over to him before Aragorn could stir and scrambled onto the table, waving an arm to stop him. The drunken crowd, thinking the hobbit intended to give them a verse or two, roared;
‘Give us a song! Give us a Shire song, let’s have it…!’

The dark-haired hobbit turned to face the crowd and at that moment he placed his woolly foot on the ale spilt on the table. He slipped and fell backwards, head over heels, off the table. Aragorn leaped to his feet, but before he could reach the hobbit, he had vanished.

A great shout of astonishment and fear went up. Then utter silence fell. Aragorn stood frozen, and in that moment of quiet he saw two or three rough fellows run from the tavern-hall. He cursed inwardly. Suddenly, the hobbit reappeared, on hands and knees on the floor…..

‘Mr Underhill!’ bawled Barliman, his red face for once white with fear. ‘what you be a-doing, breaking my crocks and frightening my customers….?’
Barliman could have added frightening myself too, for the hand on his apron was trembling. The dark-haired hobbit leaped to his feet.
‘I’m very sorry, Mr Butterbur…’ he said in a shaking voice, brushing himself down.
‘I will pay for the damage, I assure you….’ Then he shot a look at his companions, standing sheepishly by…..
‘There won’t be any more trouble, I bid you good night…’

And with that the hobbits ran from the room, towards the corridor leading to the inn rooms. As they went the dark-haired hobbit said angrily to the others;
‘I TOLD you to not to mention that name! Heaven knows who was listening….’

They reached the room assigned to them and ran inside and banged the door shut. Sam turned with a sigh of relief. Then he stopped and froze.
‘Who are you, and why are you in our room…..?’

Aragorn stepped out of the shadows.
‘My name is Strider….’

Pippin looked up at the tall, rough man in dismay. He was not much used to men, and this one was of even greater height than most. He felt his heart quail. To his surprise, the man gave them a grim smile.
‘Do not be afraid of me. I do not mean you any harm, although the way you behaved in the inn-room makes me think you are careless of who knows who you are, or what you bear….’

Pippin wiped the sweat from his face with the sleeve of his black and silver uniform. Aragorn put a hand on his shoulder.
‘I told you, Pippin, do not be afraid. I will come back in a little while. For now, all you can do for Merry is to stay with him, and speak to him.
‘But he has no wound!’ protested Pippin desperately. ‘Not even a bruise! Just that his arm that struck the blow is frozen, and he won’t wake up….’
‘He seems to sleep…’ explained Aragorn. ‘… but it is not real sleep; it is an evil death-in-life brought on by the black breath of the Nazgul. In courageously striking the Enemy, Merry has done himself a great hurt….’

Pippin’s shoulders sagged and he bowed his head. He did not understand all this. Aragorn said gently;
‘If Merry hears the voice of a friend whom he loves, it will help to call him back. Stay with him, Pip, and take care of him….’

Pippin sniffed and nodded, restraining his tears. Aragorn smiled sadly, and got to his feet and moved down the long main hall of the Houses of Healing.

At the end, Aragorn turned to look back. The great hall was full of wounded, laid on rows of pallets too many to count. The wounded had overflowed the rooms usually given over to the sick and now lay in every space of this great building in the Citadel of Minas Tirith.

Here there were Riders of Rohan mingled with soldiers of Gondor. Uniforms of black and silver were mixed with the green and gold cloaks of the Royal Guard of the Eorlingas. Many were past all human help, and tears filled Aragorn’s eyes as he wondered who could be saved. And if the hobbit could be saved. Aragorn saw Pippin take Merry’s hand and chafe it, speaking to the hobbit who lay pale and still and did not appear to hear anything. And Aragorn remembered the first time he had seen them both, in the inn-room at Bree, drinking and singing. In his mind was a great uneasiness; he felt as if some great riddle needed solving, yet his tired mind could not find a solution. He sighed and passed on out of the hall.

‘Do you remember the orchard at Bywater, Merry?’ said Pippin in a voice he strove to keep free of tears. ‘…just behind the mill?’ he rocked himself back and forward, picturing the neat rows of pink-blossomed trees under the blue skies of a Shire summer.
‘what apples it had in harvest-time! Not that they belonged to us, but there were ways to make sure we got them nevertheless….’
Pippin closed his eyes.
‘….sweet, round and red….crisp and cool after you had dipped them in the mill pool. They were like the first apples made in Middle Earth. Maybe even gifted to us by Elves, they were so sweet…..’

Pippin looked at his friend, who gave no sign that he had heard a word.
‘don’t you remember, Merry?’ he asked and his voice shook.
‘He is going to die….’ Thought Pippin in despair, and the thought of returning to the Shire alone, without his cousin and friend, filled Pippin with horror. No victory would seem like victory if it cost Merry’s life.
‘He is going to die….’ He thought again.

‘He isn’t going to die….’

The voice broke into Pippin’s thoughts and he looked up, startled. All about him the wounded and dying lay; no-one took any notice of him, far less could speak to him. He shook his head. Then the voice spoke again.

‘He will live, and be as well as he had ever been, only with dark dreams that will haunt him for the rest of his life. But he is not going to die, as the world knows death…’

Pippin stood up now, half annoyed and wondering was he beginning to lose his wits and to imagine things. Then he saw a face turned towards him, on the far side of the hall. Glancing to see that Merry was still asleep, Pippin picked his way across the wounded to where the voice came from.

It was a figure laid under the green, gold-embroidered cloak of the King of Rohan’s bodyguard. But the face was not that of a man of Rohan. Pippin exclaimed in astonishment;
‘You are an Elf!’

Liofa smiled and raised his head.
‘And you are a hobbit, although dressed in the livery of a prince of Gondor. Be at peace, little one. Your friend will not die….’

Pippin sat down beside the Elf. He looked him up and down, astonished to find one of the Fair folk amid the wreckage of battle.

This was not an Elf like the tall proud Elves Pip had seen in Rivendell. He reminded the hobbit more of Legolas. He had a fair face with dark grey eyes and dark hair, and under the cloak there peeped mail of gilded bronze such as Pippin had seen worn by the Galadhrim. But this was not an Elf of Lorien. He was slight and had a manner quiet and watchful. Even in this great stone hall he could go unnoticed, just as he could beneath the oaks and beeches of his native woodlands. Had he not spoken, Pippin would not have seen him.

The hobbit turned back the cloak and saw that the Elf was wounded in the chest; the gilded armour was rent and stained dark with blood, and the Elf’s face was grey and drawn. He had long, fine hands that did not seem as if they were much given to the arts of war and these he kept pressed to the wound as if to stop the blood.
‘You need the Healers!’ said Pippin, aghast that no-one had come to tend to the Elf. He went to get up but the Elf stopped him.

‘Human healers cannot help me, little one. Men can barely find leechcraft enough for their own. I am mortally hurt…’

Aragorn walked down the long high corridor that led away from the Hall of Healing. On one side of the gallery there was a high open arcade from which he could see out over the city and the plain beyond. Aragorn paused, setting his hands on the cool marble rim of the stone window. He glanced down at his bruised and bloodied fingers.
‘Are these the hands of a king?’ he wondered ruefully. ‘Am I only ever to hack and slay, and struggle in the tide of war? Will these hands ever build, or mend, or heal….’

He drew in a deep breath of the cool evening air. But even the sweet air of the mountains was tainted with the acrid smoke rising from the battle plain below, and when Aragorn looked down, he could see fires still burning, and the endless wreckage of battle, like seaweed cast up on a shore after a storm. He wondered would the Pelennor ever be clean again…..

‘Where are you going, Dunedain?’ said a voice behind him. Aragorn turned quickly, one hand on his sword hilt.

A figure was seated in one of the window niches. He was a tall, weatherbeaten warrior, wearing a long, muddied green cloak. But although the face was dirty and streaked with blood, Aragorn recognised it.
‘Marfach! What are you doing here?’

Marfach smiled grimly.
‘Well my lord…’ he said slowly. ‘It was your order to spare me, and so I was brought to the Healers for leechcraft of my wounds. But the Healers would not have me in their Houses and the men of Gondor would not have me in their Citadel, so I was left here, to bleed alone…’
‘I did not mean you to die here!’ answered Aragorn angrily. ‘I will call the Healers and have your hurts looked to as I commanded….’

Marfach got to his feet with difficulty. Standing, he was as tall as Aragorn. He staggered over to him and took his arm in an iron grip.
‘Never mind me, where are YOU going?’ he waved a hand towards the Hall of Healing. ‘The dying are waiting for you….’
‘I can’t help them….’ said Aragorn in despair.
‘You are the only one who can help them!’ snapped Marfach. His face had changed and his eyes, dull and listless before were now bright as an eagle’s. He took Aragorn’s hand and twisted it till the palm faced upward. Then he put his own hand on it. Aragorn felt a slight shock, like some force running between the two palms.

‘There is such power in your hand that even you, Dunedain, cannot imagine it’ said Marfach.
Aragorn stared at him, speechless. Arwen had said something like that to him as well….
‘In this hand is the power to kill but the power to give life too. In you is the strength which ran in the men of Numenor and in their kings. They brought it here from beyond the Sea. Use it before it is lost through despair and the shedding of blood!’

Aragorn pulled his hand away and stepped back. Marfach sat down again, swaying as he wrapped his cloak about him. His eyes were dull again and his face grey. He said in a whisper;

‘Your great enemy now is death, Aragorn. Return to the Halls of Healing and vanquish it…..’