The Dragon and the Fox
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
‘…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
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
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
‘How could I forget the wisdom of hobbits?’ Then he gave a grim little
‘…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
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
‘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
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
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
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
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
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
‘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,
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.
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
‘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
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
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
‘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
‘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
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…