The Dragon and the Fox

by Varda


Chapter 81: A Piece of Blue Silk

‘I have walked this Middle Earth ….’
Gandalf paused for breath as he struggled up the snow-covered mountain slope.
‘…for many times the life-span of men. But now the journeying seems more wearisome; my legs ache and my back bends as if I carried a great burden. In my hand my wizard’s staff seems to weigh heavier with every passing mile. And now, because of the endless energy of Saruon and the seemingly infinite negligence of those who should fight against him, I must be in all places at the same time…..’

He stopped his conversation with himself; how grumpy he was becoming! Perhaps he was smoking too much Southfarthing pipeweed….he shook his head and grunted.
‘Not enough of it, more like. I am just growing old and bad-tempered, like a horse sent on too many long journeys….’

He had to rest. Pushing his wide-brimmed hat up off his brows, he swept the land with his keen gaze.

He was on the crest of a spur of the Western Mountains, where they flung a long stony arm out into the wide plains of the Mark. Gandalf could have gone round the outcrop of broken, hilly upland. But as always, he was pressed for time. He had recently visited Edoras and the Golden Hall of Meduseld, there to take council with King Theoden of Rohan about the growing threat to the land from the East.

But his visit had not gone well. In fact, as Gandalf himself admitted ruefully, it had been a disaster. Never popular with the people of Rohan, who viewed all wizards with suspicion, he had received a frosty welcome in Meduseld. Theoden greeted him coolly then kept a stony silence all through Gandalf’s impassioned speech about the growing threat of Mordor, and the recent incursions of giant man-orcs who travelled in daylight, as had never been known before. But Theoden had not been interested.

‘What now, Gandalf Storm-crow?’ he had snorted.
‘Will you teach me the arts of war, and how to defend my realm?’

Gandalf, still cold and muddy from his journey and without having been offered the warm mead and sustaining rye bread that all guests were given before the king demanded they attend an audience, took a deep breath and gathered his thoughts. Theoden had at the best of times been a proud and prickly ruler to deal with. Now he seemed utterly hostile. A flicker of suspicion crossed Gandalf’s mind. Instinctively he glanced to left and right, and as he did so a face, pale almost to yellow, hairless and sallow, with grey staring eyes and long, greasy black hair, withdrew itself hastily behind a tapestry.
‘By my beard, who was that?’ thought Gandalf.
‘Did you hear me, Mithrandir?’ said Theoden in a deceivingly sweet voice. ‘..or have you lost your wits with age?’

Gandalf looked back at Theoden. He considered his reply carefully. There was no point in taking offence. And yet he wondered at the king’s manner. At his side, Theoden’s neice, Eowyn, looked deeply unhappy. Gandalf smiled at her as if to reassure her that he was not insulted. Then he spoke to Theoden.

‘King Theoden, Lord of the Mark, descendant of Eorl and master of the Eorlingas, I have not yet lost my wits, although many deem it so, especially among our enemies. But even a fool can see the peril that surrounds you and your people. It does not take a wizard, not even one in his dotage to see what is before your very nose….’

The insult, buried as it was in courtesy, hit home. Theoden grew pale. His hands, thinner and more aged than Gandalf remembered from the last time he had visited Edoras, gripped the carved wooden armrests of his throne with force.

‘How dare you!’ he said in a hoarse voice. Eowyn laid a restraining hand on his arm, but he shook it off.
‘Wormtongue!’ Theoden roared, getting stiffly to his feet.

At once the tapestry was thrown back and a thin, stooping figure clad in dusty black scuttled across to the throne, reminding Gandalf of a cockroach. He saw Eowyn recoil at the sight of the creature, and retreat from her uncle’s side.
‘My lord?’ said Wormtongue, taking up his position at the side of the throne of the Mark, easing onto a little cushioned stool from which he could whisper into Theoden’s ear. Gandalf looked on with horror, but with dawning understanding. Eowyn lowered her gaze, and there were tears in her eyes.

‘What does Gandalf Stormcrow, the bird of ill omen say, my lord king?’ said the black-clad counsellor.
‘He insults me, Wormtongue….’ said Theoden, waving his hand at Gandalf.
‘He suggests that I do not know how to defend my realm…!’

The king gave a loud laugh, and the courtiers of Rohan, standing stiffly around the hall, nervously laughed as well. Wormtongue only grinned, revealing sharp yellow teeth.
‘And how will you answer this insult, my lord King?’ he asked in a sweet voice.

Theoden did not reply for some moments. He looked out across the hall at the war-banners hanging there. It seemed his mind was elsewhere; perhaps on the long-past battlefields where he won those same war trophies.
‘I will not answer foolishness with wrath….’ He said after a while, and his voice was suddenly tired. He turned away from Gandalf. Wormtongue’s eyes had an angry, frustrated look in them.
‘Take a horse, if you will, and go, Gandalf Stormcrow…’ the King said to the wizard.
‘… I will talk to you no more….’

And Theoden, king of the Mark, shuffled away out of the hall to his royal quarters, with Wormtongue at his heels like a beggar who will not go away. Gandalf stood still, not knowing quite what to do next. Then the king’s niece, Eowyn, looked quickly round and descended the steps to stand before him.
‘Do not take this as my uncle’s final word, Mithrandir…’ she said in a voice too low to be overheard.
‘Nor should you hesitate to come here again, and to repeat these warnings, even though they might seem to fall on deaf ears….’
She stopped, a look of sadness on her face. Gandalf gestured at the stool beside the throne.
‘This counsellor Wormtongue, who is he?’
Eowyn shook her head, and now there was grief in her face.
‘I know not!’ she said, and her voice shook. ‘He came from Orthanc, sent by Saruman, so he has the king’s trust, for Saruman, it is said, is the wisest of wizards and the source of good counsel. But since he came…..’ here her voice faltered and she looked around.
‘..since he came, and since he began to advise my uncle, little has come to good, and my uncle’s health is failing. I fear we harbour a viper in our midst…..’

Eowyn stopped then, as if she thought she had said too much. She looked up at Gandalf and her face turned pale. She said stiffly;
‘You know as much as I do now, Mithrandir. Fare you well, and may you journey safely….’

Then she was gone, hurrying away from Gandalf out of the hall, into the royal quarters where the king had gone. Slowly, the hall cleared of courtiers till only Gandalf stood there, before the great hearth with its dying fire and pack of sprawled, yawning wolfhounds…..

That great fire seemed a long way away now. Gandalf stood knee-deep in fine, powdery snow, looking up the long expanse of white that he still had to cross in order to come to the plains of the south. He had refused the offer of a horse at Edoras, because he knew he could reach the south, and Gondor, more quickly by crossing the mountains arms that would be impassable to a horseman. But he had not reckoned with such heavy snow so late in the year…..

‘Short cuts prove long delays, as they say in the Shire…’ he muttered to himself.
‘How could I forget the wisdom of hobbits?’ Then he gave a grim little laugh.
‘…because I am in deathly haste, and no hobbit since the Shire was made ever knew the meaning of hurrying….’


Gandalf wiped the sweat from his brow and bent again to his task. Toiling steadily and leaning heavily on his staff, he at last reached the crest of the hill. He paused to catch his breath, and looked into the narrow, snow-speckled valley he was about to climb down into.

At once his eye was caught by movement. At first he thought it was just a herd of sheep or cattle, such as the people of Rohan would drive up onto the high pastures early in the year, to find the first new grass. But then he saw, pushing through the white and brown backs of the cattle, mounted men, galloping as fast as they could over the broken ground.

Gandalf summoned his strength and narrowed his eyes. Like the Elves, he had powers of vision beyond that of mere men. He peered intently at the galloping horses, and realised that their riders were fleeing…..

Behind them, not mounted but moving over the rocky terrain with even greater speed than the lumbering horses, was a band of Dunlendings, streaming along with fierce cries like a pack of wolves…..

Gandalf grew tense when he saw them. Of all creatures who had fallen under the power of Sauron, these were the foulest. For these were not orcs, but men. Degraded and dishonoured, but men still. Even in their natural state, before they had succumbed to Sauron, they had lived a barbaric and squalid existence. Pushed off the rich lands of the Mark by the ancestors of the Rohan, the Dunlendings scratched a poor living on the high slopes of the Western Mountains. Poverty, hunger and vengeance had raddled them till they were little better than bands of wild animals, roving the mountains in search of prey, and always seeking to avenge themselves on the people of Rohan who had taken their lands.

But now they were an even greater danger; for Sauron had not only promised them rewards if they fought for him, but he had given them arms, and food, and gold. Now, they bore weapons as good as the Rohan. And to wield them they did not require courage; they had hunger and desperation and hatred, and these served instead.

As the ragged horde surged up the hillside, Gandalf at last made out what it was that they were pursuing, and his breath caught in his throat.
‘Children!’ he said to himself in horrified disgust.

The people of the Mark were sore pressed by their enemies, orcs and Uruk-hai, whatever their deluded king thought. All men of an age to bear arms had been sent to war, or to guard the borders. Now the great herds on which the Rohan relied for their existence were entrusted not to hardy warriors to guard, but to mere children, boys and girls scarce able to struggle into the saddle, far less to wield a sword or spear.

And so the only herdsmen of this great straggling drove of cattle were a boy and girl, mounted on ancient horses. Startled out of their sleepy watch, they had turned and tried to escape from their Dunlending attackers by riding through their own herd up the steep slope of the mountain spur. But the old horses could not ascend quick enough, and the fierce mountain men were gaining on them….

Gandalf leaned forward, his grip tightening on his staff till his knuckles were white. But although he had many powers, he could not fly, and the children and their pursuers were too far away to reach in time on foot…..

Under the iron-shod hooves of the horse the loose stones made a sound like the pattering of fingers on a drum, but Crios was aware of no sound but the wild yells coming from the fierce horde behind him. He did not dare look back, just concentrated on urging forward his sister Meala’s horse. Once she looked over her shoulder at him, her terrified face streaked with tears, her hair unbound and flying in the cold wind.
‘Don’t look back!’ the boy screamed. ‘Keep going….’

Then a crabbed hand seized the horse’s tail. Crios remembered that when the Rohan rode to war they plaited up their mounts’ tails to prevent their enemies doing just that. ‘May I live to fight as a man’ he thought angrily, feeling the horse stall and whinny, its hooves slipping on the loose scree.
‘Keep going, Meala, keep going!’ he shouted and letting the reins go Crios slid from the saddle and turned to face his pursuers, tugging from its frayed sheath a dull, rusty sword…..

‘Ah no, little one…’ thought Gandalf, looking up from time to time as he struggled to hurry across the bare headland. ‘…run away! do not fight….’

The horse bearing the little girl struggled upwards along the goat-track, reached the crest of the hill then began a perilous descent of the steep slope on the other side. The little lass, crying as she clung to the front of her saddle, did not look back to see the Dunlendings overwhelm her brother.

His horse kicked its heels and shook its head and galloped away down the track to the plains. Crios stood on the narrow track, the handle of the heavy old sword slippery in his sweating palm. A ring of Dunlendings stood round him, regarding him with crooked grins and taunts in their guttural language which he could not understand.

Crios had never seen Dunlendings close up, at least not living ones. They were men, it was true; tall as his own people but stooped from inhabiting caves or stone huts in the mountains. They wore skins as a rule, fleeces of sheep or skins of goats, and any wild animals they could catch. Their hair and beards were left uncut, braided and greased and tied with any bright strip of cloth they could loot from those they attacked.

They closed in on the boy, holding their spears out to keep him from lunging at them with his sword. However ancient it might be they had suffered enough at the hands of older brothers of lads like this to think they were safe from any Rohan cub. They laughed and chattered and their foul breath rolled over Crios and made him weak with disgust.

But as the Dunlendings inched closer Crios, despite his danger, noticed that in place of the skins and fleeces usually worn by these mountain men, there were shirts of mail, fine old breastplates and helms with ancient emblems, shields both curved and round, and lances such as his own people might bear. These Dunlendings had been armed for war, and well armed…..

The thought came to Crios that he should warn his people, then he shook his head; he would not escape from this. There were too many and they surrounded him. It would be enough for him if his sister escaped.
‘You know….’ He suddenly said aloud to the rabble. ‘You really smell awful….’

Silence fell on the Dunlendings. They looked at each other in bafflement. They did not understand what the lad said, but it was spoken in such a clear strong voice that they stayed their hands for a moment.
‘Whoever gave you this fine armour and weaponry would not be happy if they knew you just put it on over smelly rags. You could at least have had a wash first….’

The Dunlendings became angry, and poked at Crios with their pikes. The lad slapped the points away with his rusty sword.
‘That’s it, come on….’ He breathed to himself. ‘…I don’t want you taking me alive to burn over a slow fire then eat. Come on, get mad and just slay me here….’

Crios had heard too often what the Dunlendings did with their captives. Cannibalism, born of their starved condition, was rife among them, and human sacrifice to the spirits that lived in the high pinnacles of mountains where they had their miserable homes. Crios did not want either. His terror melted away as he shouted at the Dunlendings. In the manner of his people who had ever been endowed with a great courage, he had forgotten his fear.

‘And then there is the question of bugs….’ He shouted at the crowd. ‘…I do hope you got rid of them before you put on that chain mail, because if not you will be scratching a lot. Scratching in honour of Sauron, eh?’

The Dunlendings did not know what he was saying, but his insolent tone and expression finally goaded them into attacking. With a wordless roar that echoed round the stony hillsides and reached Gandalf where he was struggling to hurry across the snow, the black-maned rabble finally charged forward to attack the lone boy, standing with his back to the mountain and his ancient sword held out in front of him.

So great was the press of attackers that they impeded each other and Crios managed a lucky thrust, sinking his blade into the throat of one unkempt warrior who had no armour. Then a club was brought down with savage force on his head and a spear tip skewered his hand, and he dropped his sword and fell to his knees, dazed.
‘I am going to die…’ he thought. Into his mind came the sight of his village, where his father was headman. A village that once sent two whole eoreds to war when the King of The Golden Hall asked, although now barely mustered one. He recalled he wooden palisade with the banners of the king and his clan at the gate.
‘I wish I could see it once more….’ He thought as the Dunlendings trampled his legs, jostling each other in their attempts to strike him.

‘Hssst….’

A silence fell, so sudden that Crios thought he had been struck dead, and this was the quietness that lies beyond life. And in that silence this sound was repeated; a sort of hiss, like someone asking for silence, or a snake about to strike…..

The Dunlendings fell back, stumbling in their haste. The sky appeared again above Crios, and he rolled over onto his back clutching his wounded hand. He looked up, and thought he had never seen anything as beautiful as that sky, with a long, feathered cloud like a torn war banner sailing gently across it, unaffected by what passed on the earth below.

‘Hssst….back now, little wolverines….what have you there? Will you bring it to your lord, the Red Dragon?’

Crios sat up when he heard this voice. It was not the voice of a Dunlending; it was slightly musical, clear and strong, accented but with what accent Crios could not say. And with a shock, he realised he understood what the voice was saying…and yet so did the Dunlendings.

Twisting round, he looked up and saw behind him, seated on a great black horse with a long mane and fiery red eyes, a warrior clad in the same antique chain mail and rusty breastplate as the Dunlendings. Seeing the lad staring at him, the figure smiled, and Crios looked with shock at the face, white as a corpse but with eyes that shimmered from red to grey with the light, and a mane of red hair held in long dreadlocks that hung down the creature’s back.

The Dunlendings backed hastily away, and the great black horse, moving nimbly on the loose stones, sidled down the track till it stood between Crios and the Dunlendings. The boy looked up and saw that the stranger was tall and thin and under his rusty mail he wore a long tunic of dark blue, like deep sea. His face, apart from the unnatural pallor and startling red eyes, was fair, and his hands long and fine. But on the back of his left hand Crios saw with a shock a tattoo; the sign of the Red Dragon…..

This then was the Red Dragon, feared enemy of his people, who had waged war on Rohan for years, leading the Dunlendings in raids to kill and steal from the Mark. Now, he turned his head and looked down at the lad. With his left eye, unseen by the Dunlendings, he winked at Crios, then said to the crowd;
‘This is a pretty prize, my children. What were you about to do with it? Eat it?’

There was some mumbling among the rabble.
‘Master…’ one at last replied. ‘we wanted some sport….a little pushing and pulling. I wanted a trophy, perhaps ‘is ‘ed….’
‘And I wanted to carve him up with my new sword!’ said another
‘And I fancy his cloak! I could cut that little neck for a nice warm piece of cloth like that….’
‘’e do look tasty…’ said another yearningly.

As they warmed to their replies, they began to inch closer, gripping their swords and spears and eyeing Crios hungrily. As they did, the Red Dragon leaned over and breathed on them….

Much later, when he tried to recall exactly what passed then, Crios could only think that was what happened. He was aware of a hissing sound like that of a snake about to strike, and suddenly, he imagined, the air grew icy cold. A sort of mist gathered about his eyes, then a gust of wind suddenly tore down the mountain, flinging dust and tiny stones into the faces of the Dunlendings. In the wind there were sounds of voices, like women shrieking.
‘The spirits of the mountain!’ cried one of the rabble. ‘They are angry! They don’t want us to take what is theirs….let us get away while we can….’

And a panic set in among the Dunlendings; they fought each other to sprint back down the rocky path. The clink of their jostling spears and swords echoed back up the hillside, but they were lost in a cloud of dust. At last, the sounds were swallowed up in silence. The Red Dragon inched his horse forward, and Crios scrambled to his feet, brushing the dirt from his tunic. He snatched up his sword. The stranger smiled, his pale face sad.
‘What now, warrior of Rohan? Will you kill me?’

Crios looked down at the sword, then back up at the Red Dragon. He stammered;
‘I…I don’t know what to do. You are my enemy, but….’

‘But you are not sure any more’ finished the Dragon. He lifted one long lean leg over the pommel of the saddle and slid lightly to the ground. He was a head taller than Crios, who was accounted tall for his age.

The boy looked up at the strange, pale face, then down at his bleeding hand.
‘How did I know what they were saying?’ he asked. ‘was that some sorcery of yours?’
‘Of course’ replied the Red Dragon briskly. ‘Sometimes it is useful…’
‘You are a warlock’ said Crios accusingly. The Red Dragon looked at him, then said;
‘You have a rare courage, taunting them like that……’

Crios was silent. After a while the stranger nodded at Crios’s hand.
‘Can I tend to that, or don’t you trust warlocks?’
Crios held his wounded hand to his chest and raised his sword. The Red Dragon looked at him and said in a solemn voice;
‘If you want to try to kill me, go ahead. You won’t succeed, and you will still have a maimed hand. Make up your own mind….’

Crios thought for some time. The stranger was waiting with patience, a half-smile on his face. At last Crios held out his hand.
‘I don’t want it to be crippled.’ He said as if by way of explanation.
‘It won’t be…’ said the red-eyed stranger, taking the boy’s hand and opening the fingers to reveal a deep stab wound in the palm. He drew a jewelled dagger and Crios started. But Marfach just smiled and neatly trimmed a long strip of dark blue silk from the hem of his tunic. Then he took Crios’s hand again and said;
‘Just let your thoughts go somewhere else for a time, and I will heal it…..’

When Marfach was brought into the city after the battle the only place the Sisters of the Houses of Healing would allow him to be put was a gallery on the way to the hall where they laid the dead. It was a dark and chilly place with on one side a row of poplars lining a deep pool, their black shapes reflected in the still water like silent wardens. The soldiers who carried him in and put him down made the sign to ward off evil and the Sisters hurried away, not knowing how to treat him, and fearing to go too close to him at all.

For all that day and into the night, Marfach lay half in a daze. He could not tell between dreams and waking reality. At one moment, his Elven comrades from the Company of Melian gathered round him, even though they were dead a thousand years or more. At other times a face of exquisite beauty and kindness swam into view above him, speaking comfort and entreating him to rise and look about him, and renew his vow of obedience. And Marfach knew that was Sauron.

‘Draw on the power I gave you, my lieutenant!’ he said to Marfach in a voice as musical as a summer stream. ‘no mortal can kill you when I preserve your life…’

Then the vision was gone. Marfach felt the pain of the deep wound Eomer had given him on the field of battle and the chill as of approaching death. The voice of Sauron was right; he could summon great power and heal himself. But if he did so, he would never be free of the domination of Sauron.

‘Better to die like any mortal, then….’ thought Marfach, twisting in pain on the narrow stone ledge that served as a bed. He came awake suddenly, not from his wound, but because he sensed someone beside him, watching him. He struggled to sit up….

It was a long time to dawn, and the moonlight fell through the high colonnade on one side of the gallery. Out of the thick shadows and into the grey-silver light a cloaked figure stepped, and stood with its hooded face turned towards Marfach.

‘Who are you?’ he asked. But the figure did not reply, just stayed motionless, as if watching him closely.
‘If you came to slay me….’said Marfach. ‘You will find it easy, so do not hold back…’

At these words the figure reached up and pushed back the hood, and threw back the cloak onto his shoulders.
Marfach raised his eyebrows; it was one of the Rohirrim, leader of an eored by the look of his shining mail and his helm with a white horse-hair crest. Slowly, the warrior reached up and took off the helm, revealing a tall, fair young man with long yellow hair and keen even cold grey eyes. He moved with the wary grace of a leopard and looked keenly at Marfach for some time before he at last smiled and said;
'You are the Red Dragon, unless I am mistaken….’

Marfach smiled wearily.
‘I have done your people much wrong, captain of the Eorlingas…’ he said. ‘…if you wish to take your revenge, you may do so now with ease. I am not able to defend myself….’

And bowing to the pain of his wound, and the weakness that was growing on him, Marfach lay down again and closed his eyes.

He had begun to drift off into sleep when he felt the warrior take his hand. He sat up with difficulty and looked into the cold grey eyes. The warrior was smiling.
‘You have lost a hand, friend. Once, you bore the sign of a Red Dragon on it, and that gave you your name….’
Marfach nodded warily. The warrior took something from his belt and put it in Marfach’s right hand. Then he stood up and nodded, although it could have been a bow of honour.
‘Farewell, Red Dragon…..’ he said, and turning walked slowly down the gallery and out of sight.

Marfach looked down at his hand, and slowly opened his fingers. There on his palm, the bloodstains long washed out, was a narrow strip of blue silk, the hem of a richly woven tunic, with silver embroidery glimmering in the moonlight like stars in the deep midnight sky over the Northern Sea…