The Dragon and the Fox

by Varda

Chapter 82: Some Other Sorcery

‘We meet at last, Marfach….’

The voice seemed to come from far away, and Marfach struggled through the veils of a dark and disturbed sleep to open his eyes and look up from the stone bench where he lay in a fever from his wounds.

Bending over him was a tall figure with long white hair and beard, clad in a tunic and cloak of shimmering white material. The hem, however, was sullied with dried mud, and the soft white doeskin boots that peeped out from under the robes were also caked with dirt. But the eyes in the lined and weatherbeaten face were blue as a summer sky, and twinkled in a childlike manner as their owner said;
‘I believe it is time you and I had a talk….’

Marfach struggled to sit up. The cold stone had left him stiff, and the wound in his side, lacking any treatment, ached with a deep, gnawing pain. But every ache brought a kind of satisfaction to Marfach; if this wound could carry him away into death, he would be freed from pain of an even worse kind.

‘Well, do you wish to speak to me or not?’

‘What do you want of me, Gandalf the White?’ asked Marfach wearily.

Gandalf snorted and gathering his white robes around him he settled down beside Marfach on the stone ledge, carefully placing his staff against the wall. He also unbuckled his sword belt and laid it on the ground beside him. Marfach raised an eyebrow.
‘Do you mean by this to show you know you do not need any weapon when you are with me?’ Marfach asked with a bitter smile. Gandalf regarded him with a hurt look.
‘Of course not!’ he replied. ‘and in any case, I am hardly likely to be afraid of you now, am I?’

‘Oh yes….’ Said Marfach. ‘I forgot. You are Gandalf the White now, not needing to fear anything a miserable creature of Sauron’s like me might do….’

At these words, Gandalf suddenly was transformed from a kindly old man in white to a towering pillar of anger.
‘Do not say anything like that to me again!’ he thundered, rising to his feet and shaking a finger at Marfach.
‘You have been given gifts, great gifts, and you have used them with courage and honour even when you had no hope of reward. Do not demean your own worth and that of those who have trusted you by saying such things! You are no more a creature of Sauron than I am!’

Gandalf subsided, sitting down again beside Marfach, grumbling into his beard, snorting and grunting.
‘A fine mess this is!’ Marfach heard him say.

After a while, when he thought it safe to speak, Marfach said carefully;
‘It is nothing but the truth, Mithrandir. For any good I have done, I have done far more ill. And my blood is itself poisoned. I should have died from the wound Eomer gave me in battle, and yet I am still alive. And it is not by the skill of the healers that I survive; they will not pollute their hands by touching me and I don’t blame them. This is an unholy life, Gandalf, and I only bear it because the will and power of Sauron is strong in me still. I can never be free….’

‘Silence!’ said Gandalf, raising a hand to stop Marfach speaking. But this time he did it not with wrath, but with sadness and regret.

‘I know what you say seems to be true' he said, nodding and speaking in a gentler voice. '.....but more is at work here than is clear even to my eyes, Marfach, or as you once were, Croga. Remember, Sauron is at present far away, and busied with other, greater enterprises than ensuring the continued slavery of an Elf…’
‘I know now that I am not an Elf, Mithrandir…’
Gandalf looked at him with astonishment. Marfach nodded.
‘I was leader of the company of Melian for a reason. Melian herself exalted me because she knew I was something more than the Elves I led into battle…..’
Marfach looked at Gandalf. ‘if you asked it of me, I could tell you the fate of the two lost Istari…’

Gandalf was now pale. Marfach smiled wryly.
‘You see, my wisdom brings only fear to those who learn of it. I was created with the Elves, but am not of them. They honoured me once and were happy to have me in their ranks, but I was made for another purpose, and I was made to live among men. Why the Elves never told me I do not know, except that perhaps it was a mystery to them as well…..’

Gandalf sat back, regarding Marfach thoughtfully.
‘How much do you know of your birth?’ he asked. Marfach shook his head.
‘Do you know how, at dawn, you remember a dream, Gandalf? How it fills your head, vivid as life itself? And yet, when you try to make sense of it, to set it in order, it vanishes away like the night itself put to flight by grey dawn. So it is with me. I remember a time before time, and I remember being with the Elves and honoured by them for a special inheritance. But after that….’ He shook his head ‘… the torture of Sauron has warped my memory, so that sometimes I recall with brightness and wonder, and then it is all sucked back into terrible night….’
He looked at Gandalf and his pale face and strange red eyes were sad.
‘I know, Mithrandir, that the day I remember it all will be the day I die….’

They sat in silence for some time. Then Gandalf cleared his throat and said;
‘There is something else I wanted to ask you….’
Marfach shrugged listlessly. ‘Go on then, ask it….’ he said.
‘That time on the mountain, in Rohan….’ Gandalf said ‘….the time you saved those two children….’
‘I never saved any children…’ said Marfach stonily. But Gandalf repeated;
‘…the time you saved the two children of Rohan from the Dunlendings…’
Marfach was silent, but a flicker of memory lit up his thin pale face.
‘…that time you saved the children, Marfach…’ repeated Gandalf. ‘..I was puzzled, and would very much like to know, what did you say to the Dunlendings?’

By now, Marfach was smiling. Gandalf went on;
‘..even from where I was standing, quite far away, I could hear you send out a hissing noise, like a snake. But there were words in that hiss. As one wizard to another I would greatly love to know, Marfach, what spell did you use to disperse that dim-witted but dangerous rabble?’

Marfach looked at Gandalf and laughed, shaking his long red dreadlocks.
‘You don't want the secrets of my sorcery, Mithrandir. You want to remind me of some good I once did and thereby make me do more, perhaps?’

The smile vanished from Gandalf’s face. He took Marfach’s arm in a grip of iron.
‘There is something in you that is found in no other man or Elf on earth, Marfach, and it is not just sorcery. It is against all reason that such a thing should slip from the world unvalued. Or unused. Defeat these injuries and live, Marfach! You have a destiny, and it lies with the king….’
‘The King?’ repeated Marfach, his face clouding with doubt.
‘Yes, with Aragorn’ said Gandalf. ‘I look to you to render him some service, a great task, one which you alone can accomplish..’
‘What is it?’ asked Marfach.
‘I want you to go into the lands before Mordor to find what lies in wait there, so that there will be safe passage for his armies, as they advance on the Gates of Mordor….’

Forgetting his wound, Marfach leaped to his feet. Pain made him sink back down with a groan.
‘Do what?’ he gasped. ‘He is going to do what?’

‘Advance on Mordor’ said Gandalf again. ‘I will entrust you with our plans, the last desperate throw of the dice for Gondor; we aim to attack Mordor, and draw out the armies of Sauron….’
‘You are all mad!’ interrupted Marfach. ‘You will never succeed….’

Then Marfach stopped. There was a wry smile on the wizard’s face, and he sat back looking down at his scuffed doeskin boots. Marfach laughed bitterly and sank his head into his hands.
‘It is a trap, isn’t it? And you are the bait?’

Gandalf did not reply for a while, then he said evenly;
‘Aragorn has need of men. But even the greatest armies will falter before the Black Gates, and I foresee that many will turn back. Aragorn has dire need of those who will not shatter with fear before the sight of the Black Land. I know you are such a being, for you once escaped that very place. Now, it is time to render to Aragorn that service you owe him for sparing you. This is the hour of your testing, Marfach, and perhaps the hour of your final freedom, for life or for death…..’

At the gate of Minas Tirith, Callanach had become caught up in a jostling crush of soldiers and Riders of Rohan as they hurried into the city. Before he could protest, Marfach was pulled from his side and put in a wagon with the rest of the wounded.
‘But he is my charge!’ the lad protested.
‘He will be well cared for in the Houses of Healing!’ replied a Captain, slamming shut the tailboard of the cart. ‘Move on!’ he shouted at the driver.

And before Callanach could do anything to stop it, the cart shot forward, heaving over the piles of slain orcs and abandoned weapons and disappearing under the great gate of Minas Tirith. Before the city took him, Callanach caught a last glimpse of Marfach, shaking his head as if to reassure his friend, and the lad thought he also gave him a wink.

And then Callanach was alone on the battlefield. On his right the sun, a blood-red ball surrounded by a poisonous yellow wrack of cloud, hastened to sink behind the mountains, as if tired of looking on slaughter. Already the field of battle was falling into shadow, the dead of both sides becoming indistinguishable in a still, icy mist that crept up from the river.

But on the road to the city nothing was still; Callanach was pushed and jostled by the great host of Rohan and the remnants of the City garrison who had survived their sortie out into the battle. Exhausted, bloody and spent, they trudged up the wide beaten way to the great gate, and would have trampled the slight warrior in Elven armour underfoot if he had not stepped aside to let them pass…..

But Callanach was unwilling to enter Minas Tirith. He wondered where Liofa was, and turning back he walked for an hour across the battlefield until he found the place where he had left the wounded Elf.

But there was no sign of Liofa. Callanach stood alone and forlorn, the blue-grey dusk invading the plain of death, a chilly wind snatching at the ragged banners planted here and there among the slain. Then, stiff and sad, wondering if his friend was even alive, Callanach made his way to the gate of Minas Tirith.

The great flood of men and horses retreating into the safety of the city had dwindled now to a trickle, and those mostly men who had rescued comrades and were now bearing them in, on carts or borne before them on their weary horses. None of them spared a word or a glance for the solitary young warrior standing before the great gate of Minas Tirith.

In his home in Arnor far in the North, Callanach had grown up with the myth of Minas Tirith as a wondrous place of shining white walls and splendid palaces. Now that he actually saw it, Callanach’s could only feel appalled. The white walls were stained with fire and smoke, and riven to their base in many places by the bombardment of the orc catapults. Wooden towers and siege engines lay splintered and burning along the battlements.

‘Is this what victory looks like?’ wondered Callanach sadly. But he drew a deep breath and walked on towards the gate, determined to find Liofa if he was inside the city.

The remnants of the army had passed in through the great gates and cleared of crowds this wide approach road now revealed itself as a place of horror. Huge mounds of slain orcs had been pushed off it into pits on either side, ditches which the orc sappers themselves had gouged out to house their catapults and other siege machines. Now in the twilight they lay by hundreds in death, their limbs entwined, their yellow tusks bared in a last rage against the men whom they could not vanquish.

The pits held not only orcs. Cast aside once it had done its task, in one deep trench beside the Gate itself lay Grond, the mighty siege engine used to ram the doors of Minas Tirith and wrenching them from their hinges bring them crashing to the ground. Callanach peered down with wonder and horror at the huge iron drum of the ram, and its fearsome wolf-shaped head. The fires that had blazed in its iron maw were now just glowing cinders, and the great engine’s iron back had been shattered by its fall into the pit. The hideous beasts that had pulled Grond, hybrids of Mordor the like of which Callanach had never seen before, lay crushed and dead under the very machine they had drawn to battle. And on top of it lay the orcs that had ridden Grond to war, raining arrows on the defenders of the city. In the dusk, Callanach thought he would never see a vision of such horror…..

‘Tear your eyes from all this….’ he at last told himself with an effort. ‘ must go into the city and look for Liofa and Marfach….’

Turning his back on the pit, Callanach walked up to the ruined gates of Minas Tirith. Although they barely hung on their hinges, still the carvings of Kings and Queens of Gondor were clear on their great oaken panels.

Callanach stepped closer to the doors, wondering at the calm noble faces of these princes and princesses of long ago. He felt close to tears, with pride and sorrow. Even after the hammering of Grond’s wolfish iron snout, still these ancient lords of his people retained in their fine faces beauty and authority. Alone in the dark gateway Callanach bowed and said to himself;
‘At last I enter the city of the kings of my people of old, of Gondor and Arnor….’

‘Hey, boy!’ shouted a sentry from the wall above.
‘Pass in or stay outside, we must bar the gateway lest some enemy gain access in the night….’

Callanach sighed and walked on into the square within the gate, giving the guard an acknowledging wave. Soon there was the rumble and clatter of loaded carts being rolled into position in the gateway, to block it till morning.

Callanach stood in the great square, looking around with dismay.

Once this had been a noble space, its pavement made of white marble and its walls arcaded with elegant pillars. In the middle stood a statue of Elendil on horseback, sword held aloft in his hand.

But this square had been the scene of the fiercest fighting, as the defenders strove to prevent the attacking orcs and trolls from advancing further into the city. The dead of the city had been reverently borne away, but the slain orcs still lay in piles, and the arcades were smeared with blood and soot. Huge dead trolls, their mottled flesh sickly white in the dusk, still lay about the square and the statue of Elendil was chipped and dirty, and had lost its sword. The fine white pavement was covered with black blood…..

On the towers that flanked the great gate, orc standards had been planted as the army of Mordor streamed into the city. Now men of the city were hewing them down and erecting again the banners of Gondor. Looking up Callanach saw the White Tree and Stars unfurled against a dark blue sky where real stars had just begun to twinkle, and his eyes again grew dim with tears. Then he bent his head with a sigh and turned to make his way into the city…

The wooden buildings on the lower levels of the city had been almost all destroyed by fire. Here had been merchant houses and stables, and the acrid smell of burning was almost stifling in the narrow dark streets. But bearing flaming torches men worked ceaselessly to damp down the few remaining fires and save any grain or oil or other stores from the wreckage.

The door to the second level lay smashed and burned on the cobbled street, and Callanach passed through to find that level of the city also destroyed, along with its homes and barracks. In the tiny squares the once beautiful fountains were dry of water and clogged with dead orcs, but few of the city’s inhabitants had perished here, as the defenders had fallen back to the higher levels. By the time Callanach had reached the fifth level the gate, although scorched and splintered, was sound, and barred against him.

‘Who goes there?’ called a voice from the battlements above. ‘What is the password?’

Callanach stood baffled for a moment. He was late indeed into the city, and now the defenders feared Sauron’s spies. What could the password be, he wondered…..

‘Isildur!’ he shouted back, almost without thinking.
‘Pass through, friend!’ called back the sentry, and the gate swung open with a loud creak. Callanach walked on to the next level, wondering again at the special sense that he had of such things, making it possible for him to read the thought of another…a skill that he had brought back from beyond the gates of death, because before his drowning in Lorien he had not possessed such a power.

At last Callanach walked through the gate of the sixth level, and here the armies of Gondor were quartered, with great bustle and chaos. The boy pushed through a press of Riders of Rohan and armoured guards of the city, Rangers in their green cloaks and mail-clad levies from the rich lands below the Pelennor, who had flocked to the city’s defence in the last days before the siege. No-one paid any attention to the young man in the bright Elven mail, but whenever Callanach met any of the King’s Guard of Rohan, in their gold-embroidered green cloaks, they shunned him and brushed past him roughly, as if he was unclean.

Callanach heaved a weary sigh and made his way through the throng along a cobbled street with on one side the vertiginous wall of the Citadel and its palaces and on the other a walkway along the lower curtain wall that gave a breathtaking view over the Pelennor, where red fires glowed in the dark. Callanach wanted to ask where Marfach was, but he was afraid of receiving only a rebuff, so greatly was the Red Dragon hated.

Then he realised he had only to enquire where the wounded had been taken, and he would find not only Marfach but perhaps Liofa as well. He caught the sleeve of a squire hurrying past.
‘Excuse me…could you tell me where the wounded have been quartered?’

The man, a thin-faced fellow with sharp black eyes, stepped backwards and regarded Callanach’s golden leaf mail with curiosity.
‘From your armour I see you are a soldier of rank…’ he said ‘…so you should know that we do not leave our wounded to linger and die but take them to be healed in the Houses of Healing, where the Sisters have great store of leechcraft and herbcraft….’
‘I apologise for my ignorance…’ said Callanach with a bow, a wry smile on his face. The squire missed his sarcasm, and bowed in return with a smug look on his face.
‘The Houses are on the highest level of the city, in the Citadel itself. You need special permission to enter there, unless you are wounded…’
‘I am looking for my friends, who are hurt’ said Callanach simply.

The squire gazed thoughtfully at Callanach. Then he took his arm and looked up and down the street and said;
‘The city is grown wary; they fear the Enemy will try to spy on our leaders and learn their counsels. So it is almost impossible for anyone to enter the Citadel. But if you only want to see your wounded friends, I will gain you entrance. Come with me…’

The squire turned then and with Callanach in tow he forced a way through the crowd of soldiers and townspeople till they came to a narrow alley between two high buildings. Glancing up and down the street, the Squire ducked into this dark opening, pulling Callanach after him.

The alley wended between the buildings till it was barred with a rusty iron gate. The gate however was unlocked, and the squire opened it with a grating creak. Peering through, Callanach was surprised to see before him a steep narrow stone staircase. The squire said to him;
‘This is a secret walkway ascending up to the Citadel. It is called the Cat’s Ladder. It will bring you out on the stair up to the Courtyard of the Tree. You can reach the Houses from there….’
As Callanach went to enter it, the squire clutched his arm.
‘Only, if you are asked, do not say I led you here….’
Then the man winked at Callanach, and vanished back down the narrow alley.

‘A strange servant, indeed..’ thought the lad, looking after him. ‘To trust me without knowing anything of me. Yet I am glad he did…’

The Ladder was lit in peacetime by torches in iron sconces set in the walls of the buildings on either side. But now the torches were unlit, and Callanach had to feel his way upwards along the stair. The steps, worn by generations taking this secret route to the Citadel, were shiny and smooth, and once or twice Callanach slipped. Taking a deep breath, he regained his footing and went on upwards.

At last the staircase was barred with another rusty iron gate, but again it was unlocked, and Callanach just pushed it open and stepped through. By now day had died from the sky completely, and it was by starlight that Callanach saw a narrow, steep courtyard with doors, like stables, leading off it. At the end a wide flight of stone steps led upwards. Long banners fixed into the battlements overhead trailed almost to the ground. They brushed Callanach’s face as he made his way upward to the broad patch of starlit sky that opened up at the top of the stairs.

At last Callanach reached the head of the stairway, and stepped off into a wide stone square surrounded by a low wall on one side and a tall white palace on the other. He caught his breath. In the middle of the square was a withered tree, silver-white in the starlight.
'The court of the Tree of the Kings..' Callanach said to himself.

Behind the palace rose the forbidding heights of the mountains themselves, grey and riven with dark chasms. On the other side stretched the plain of the Pelennor, glittering with red fires and veiled with black smoke. And beyond that, glowing with fires of even greater menace, lay the land of Mordor.

Callanach was drawn almost against his will to the low wall to look out across the battle plain. He wondered that, from this great height, it all looked so small and insignificant, yet there so many brave captains had perished, and less famous men too who would be mourned with just as much sorrow.
‘How far I am from the lands of the North, where I belong…!’ he said aloud.

‘Where we all belong!’ roared a mighty voice behind him. Callanach, startled, went to draw his sword but before he could two massive arms were flung around him, pinning his own arms to his side and almost squeezing the breath out of him. Then he was lifted off his feet and swung around. He looked down at a broad, laughing face smudged with soot and the grime of battle. Clear grey eyes gazed into his, and just below the giant’s chin Callanach saw a seven pointed silver star, a brooch fastening a grey-green cloak…..

‘Teagar!’ cried Callanach with what breath he could manage. ‘What are you doing here?’

‘Callanach, Storm of the North, what are YOU doing here?’ echoed the giant. He gave the lad one last rib-cracking hug and swung him in another complete circle, then deposited him, swaying and dizzy, on the pavement.

The giant stepped back, and as Callanach regained his balance and his breath, he saw others standing behind Teagar, also clad in the grey-green cloaks and silver star brooches of Rangers. He stood upright at once, and spoke breathlessly;
‘I don’t believe it….you must be a dream…it cannot be the Black Company?’

Teagar the giant threw back his head and laughed, his hands on his hips. Eagerly Callanach’s gaze roved over the company behind him, seeking familiar faces. His joy abated when he realised that many were missing. But Callanach was astonished to see their places had been taken by Elves, tall proud Elves with long cloaks of shimmering blue or blood red. At their head stood an Elf with a fair, kindly face who cradled a hand wrapped in white bandages. He smiled at Callanach, but beside him stood a taller Elf with a sterner bearing and long black hair who looked at the lad with a proud, disdainful expression. He raised an eyebrow and said to a Ranger standing beside him;
‘Is this another of the Black Company you lost along the way…?’

Teagar replied quietly;
‘You could say that, Dearfa…’

‘That is not true!’ burst out Callanach, angry and hurt. ‘You left me behind in Lorien, you pack of dogs!’

Some of Rangers received this remark with nervous laughter, but others looked down as if ashamed. The tall stern Elf frowned, and flicked a speck of ash from his gilded armour. But one of the Rangers stepped forward and put a hand on Callanach’s shoulder. He was not as tall as Cal, a wary, lean man with a dour face, shaggy black hair and piercing blue eyes. The young man remembered him as Seolta, the one they called the Gracious, because he was so awkward and devoid of all courteous manners.
‘Where is Crionna?’ Callanach asked him. Seolta shook his head.
‘Much has happened since we left you in the keeping of the Lady Galadriel, Storm.’ He said. ‘Crionna was lost at the battle of the Ford, and now I am leader of the Black Company…’

He paused then, looking searchingly at Callanach. He studied the gilded armour that the Galadhrim had given him, and his Elvish sword. He saw too the streaks of silver in Cal’s black hair, and the strangely distant look in his grey eyes….

‘But I can see much has happened to you too, Storm.’ he said gently. ‘I would have expected no less, for when we left Lothlorien you were dead, drowned in the Anduin….’

Seolta paused, allowing the words to sink in among the host. After some moments, he went on;
‘…it was only because we thought you were never to wake from that sleep of death that we reluctantly went on our way. I see that somehow Queen Galadriel wrought some mighty healing that called you back from death…’

At this the tall dark-haired Elf, Dearfa, interrupted the leader of the Rangers.
‘Not even Galadriel would call the dead back to life, Seolta!’ he cried
‘….although it is believed she has the power to do so. Some other sorcery perhaps was involved….’

He stopped, and there was an awkward silence. Then Seolta said;
‘I care not how it happened, I am just glad you have returned to us…and yet, I do not know that we could have done anything else at the time but leave you behind….’

Callanach felt all eyes were now upon him, waiting for his reply, Waiting, perhaps, for his forgiveness. Callanach took a deep breath and said at last;
‘I understand, Seolta. I do not hold it against you my friends, the Black Company…’

There was a sigh of relief from the crowd of Rangers, and a few cheers. Seolta embraced Callanach and for a while no-one spoke. Then Seolta said cautiously;
‘… if no other captain has claimed your allegiance, you are welcome to return to the ranks of the Black Company…..’

Callanach looked past Seolta at the host of armed men and Elves. A sharp pang struck his heart as he remembered those who were missing and remembered above all his father, Feolchu, the Wolf, who had been leader of the Black Company when they set off from the North.

Then Callanach remembered with shame and anger how the Rohirrim had rejected him, and wondered if he would ever find Liofa or Marfach again, or if he even should try. Perhaps their paths and his were not meant to run together....

At last he smiled at Seolta.
‘As your ranks have been greatly enhanced by the presence of Elves…’ he said with mock solemnity, to the accompaniment of laughs and groans from the men and a puzzled frown from Dearfa;

‘…I will be very glad to rejoin the Black Company….’