The Dragon and the Fox

by Varda

Chapter 83: A Twilight for Princes

After Aragorn had left Marfach, he walked back through the Halls of Healing. Everywhere there were wounded and dying men, with the Sisters hurrying here and there, exhausting themselves in their efforts to bring healing and comfort to those in pain or past feeling anything. A soft voice spoke at his shoulder.

'This is a time to heal as well as to fight, Aragorn....'

He turned and found Gandalf behind him. The wizard's white robes were concealed by a ragged grey cloak, but even then Aragorn could see they were besmirched by battle and stained with the black blood of orcs. Nothing could escape the grime of war, he thought bitterly.

'That is what Marfach said' he retorted.
'You have seen Marfach?' Gandalf asked. Aragorn nodded.
'I cannot say what to do with him' he said with a weary shrug of his shoulders. 'I do not trust him, but I cannot bring myself to deny him chance after chance to prove he deserves the trust I won't give.....'

Gandalf shook his head.
'Do not think any more about him; he is between two worlds, and must fight to regain the one he has lost, while struggling to cast off the one Sauron would force him to return to...'
'But if he is false!' cried Aragorn. '...he will do great damage to our hopes...'

Gandalf put a hand on Aragorn's arm, shaking his head and smiling.
'Aragorn! Remember, we can only do what is in our power to do. What is beyond our powers, perhaps others, even those who seem unfit, will perform. Let us now do what we can. It is a time for you to heal, not to slay....'

After the first headlong rush across the sun-scorched grass of the Pelennor, Faramir remembered nothing but shouts and screams and horses swerving and stumbling all around him. Ahead, wreathed in a bitter smoke, rose the still-white walls and towers of Osgiliath, with its graceful dome higher than all, even though cracked and stained with smoke. The pale curve of its roof against the stormy sky was the last thing Faramir remembered, and his brother's words speaking from the sudden darkness.

'This is my errand, and I will claim it, little brother....'

When he woke up, the cool spring sky was gone, and so too was the din and chaos of battle. He lay in darkness, but all about him was fire. Flames licked at his clothing, and smoke caught in his throat. He tried to raise his head, but was too weak. He moved a hand, but found it bound and held down, and at even the slightest movement pain shot through his whole body, from what felt like a deep wound in his side.

He tried to speak, but his voice would not obey him. He tried to look about, but the smoke from the fire and a dim haze over his eyes kept him in a kind of prison. Then, looming above all, taller than any mortal man in his regal gown and with a terrible look on his face, his father stepped up beside him.

'Father....!' Faramir tried to speak, but no words could he say. The flames around him, crackling as they consumed the dry kindling on which he lay, scorched his hand.

'Better you should burn here, than on the pyres the enemy have prepared for us all!' said Denethor, and Faramir gazed up at him in dismay and fear.

'It is a nightmare!' he thought to himself, but one from which he could not seem to wake. Gradually, everything clouded again into darkness.

'Well now, you have seen the damage I have done' said Boromir. 'Are you happy?'

Faramir turned and looked at his brother. Boromir looked strange, pale and thin and somehow sunken and smaller than Faramir remembered. He looked about him in bewilderment. They stood in a long, dark hall, as large as the hall of the Stewards, but this hall was strange to Faramir. Outside, it was twilight, but no torches were lit, and no servants came to light the braziers. It was deathly cold.
'Brother, where is this, and how came I here?' asked Faramir. Boromir smiled and shook his head.
'Don't ask those questions, Faramir. Just listen to me. It is the last advice I will give you.....'

'Oh no...' thought Faramir. He was long used to his brother's sermons, giving him chapter and verse on his shortcomings as a soldier and a general. But as if reading his mind, Boromir shook his head.
'I come not to tell you what you are doing wrong on the field of battle. It is my urgent wish to tell you, Faramir....'
And here Boromir's face was lit with a strange light, of sadness and love;
' is my dearest desire to tell you that even when I sold you at the least price, when I held your worth, in battle or council, at a low reckoning, I knew you were my equal, if not my master, in all lore, and even in battle....'

Faramir went to protest, but Boromir waved him away.
'Do not waste what little time we have.....'

Faramir stopped then, and looked about him.
'What little time do we have, brother?' he asked, feeling suddenly chilled. '..and where is this place?'

Boromir regarded his brother steadily, and at length put his hands on Faramir's shoulders.

'These are the last words I will ever speak to you, Faramir. So be quiet, and listen....'

Fighting down a protest, Faramir obeyed. Boromir dropped his hands and looked long into his brother's eyes. Deep down in Boromir's own eyes, Faramir saw a cold grey abyss, and began to feel the icy hand of fear on his heart. Boromir began to speak;

'Seek for the sword that was broken, the voice told us. But it was to you that the words were first addressed, because it was you, not I, who had the generosity and vision to relinquish the Seat of the Stewards to the king.

Know, brother, I could never have handed Minas Tirith back to Aragorn, even if our forefathers and Isildur and Elendil themselves had risen from the tomb to command me to do so. Only you had the mandate, only you had the strength of heart. Now, do not fail me, do not let my own failure to see both what was in my own heart and what was before my own eyes. Rise, and live.....'

And as he spoke, Boromir seemed to grow grey of hair and pale of face. He stepped back, letting his hand trail on Faramir's hand with a fleeting touch like that of an autumn frost, and with a sad smile he began to fade into the shadows of the long, twilit hall.....

Faramir tried to follow, but as in all dreams, he felt his legs like lead, and his feet impeded.
'Boromir!' he called 'Boromir! come back!'

'Set right what I have done wrong, Faramir last of the Stewards. Follow Aragorn the king, as I did not have the honour to not forget what I have said, and never doubt that however I failed, I failed not in love for you.....' came the words from the darkness, and Boromir was gone.

Aragorn felt tired, more tired than after even the greatest battle he had ever fought. He had healed and helped to heal for many hours, and now he felt as if some great charge of energy had been drawn from him. But he was determined to deny himself before he should deny anyone else. Led at last to Faramir's side, he waited till Gandalf drew back, then seated himself beside the wounded man and took his hand, which was cold and stiff, and looked into his face.

The Healers had done their work well, and Faramir's wound, an arrow-head buried in his side, had been well treated. But still his fever raged, and he was lost in dark dreams, muttering and calling out words with no meaning. He grew weaker, tossing restlessly, bathed in his own sweat, sinking towards death even as those about him watched helplessly.

Faramir had been laid in a room on his own, as befitted his rank. Over him was placed rich coverlets, and cold cloths had been placed on his brow. But his skin was waxy like that of a corpse, and Aragorn thought when he saw him that this was one who was ready for death, in spirit if not in truth. And under his lids, Faramir's eyes were moving, seeing visions not of this world. But then Aragorn remembered what Gandalf had said to him;
'Do what you can; leave the rest to others, even to those you think unfit.....'

Aragorn leaned over and once again as often that day he laid his hand on the brow of the wounded man. Once again he had the strange, and not pleasant sensation of power going out of him, being drawn in by one whose need was even greater than his own......suddenly, to his surprise, for he had feared Faramir would require more healing, and might in the end not respond to all Aragorn could give him, the man stirred and spoke some words in a low voice.

Aragorn took his hand away. He leaned over and said to Faramir.

'Awake, Faramir, awake!'

The man moved his head as if seeing something with his closed eyes, then opened them and looked at Aragorn. As if recognising a beloved friend, he smiled. Then he said;

'I am ready, my King. What is your command?'

A wave of relief, sweeping all despair away, rushed over Aragorn. He felt as if it was his own brother who had come back to life. He smiled and replied;
'Only to live, and be well, and be ready when I return.....'

When Gandalf left, Marfach thought to himself;.
‘He has more important things to attend to than talking to the likes of me…’ Then, as if exhausted by their long conversation, he rolled himself up in his bloodstained cloak and closed his eyes. Like the Elves, he did not sleep but when wounded or very tired he drifted off into a sleep-like state. However, like a resting panther, he continued to be aware of what was happening around him….

Marfach thought about what the wizard had said to him. Taking every word, for he remembered Gandalf’s speech in its entirety, he pondered it and wondered what path he should take in the world now, if he survived his wounds. Gandalf had stirred something deep inside him, and he no longer felt helpless, or thought that the only thing he could do in the face of Sauron’s lingering power over him was to seek his own destruction. A restlessness had come over him; he wanted to act, to move out and range the land as he had before, treading the forest paths under the stars, or the lonely Northern moors in deep snow, only this time to do some good while it could still make a difference…..

Shut off in his own world, alone except for his thoughts, Marfach paid no attention to his surroundings. But after a while, out of the noise of people passing to and fro along the hall he heard footsteps approaching him, light and swift, accompanied by the rhythmic jingle of a heavy bunch of keys. Even with his eyes closed still Marfach knew the owner of these softly-shod nimble feet was heading for him. He pretended to be deeply asleep, and waited.

The footsteps, and the jangling of keys, halted beside him, and there was the chink of a brass bowl being placed on the stone ledge at his head. Then there was the slight sigh of a deep breath being taken, then silence.

Marfach waited for a long time, but at last curiosity got the better of him and he opened one eye a tiny crack.

Kneeling beside him on the cold stone floor was a young woman in the blue and white habit of the Sisters of the Houses of Healing. Her face was pale with fine features but with a set, determined mouth. She wore her hair tied severely back under her veil, and a large snow-white apron was wound around her slender waist and belted tightly with a black leather belt from which hung a chain and a large ring with many keys, great and small.

Marfach raised himself up on one elbow, staring at the girl. He wondered what she was doing, then realised she was saying something to herself, reciting some verse. Marfach frowned.

‘Can I help you, or do you not wish your poetry to be disturbed?’ he asked quietly.

At his words, the girl raised her head and got briskly to her feet. She ignored Marfach’s question and said primly;
‘Gandalf the White has requested the head of our order, Ioreth, to send a healer to you. I have volunteered, and I am reciting our oath of healing, in order to summon strength to heal you, and courage to overcome my antipathy to your kind before I touch you….’

Marfach’s frown deepened.
‘Lady…’ he replied in an ominously soft voice. ‘I beg you, take your antipathy and your neat white livery and get out of my sight….’

The girl’s eyebrows went up, and her pale face grew even paler, but she did not move.
‘That is impossible’ she snapped. ‘It is by order of the King that you are to be mended. So says Gandalf the White. You are commanded to receive treatment, and I am commanded to give it….’

Marfach stared at her, stupefied. In a quieter, almost weary voice she said;
‘You don’t want me here, and I don’t want to be here, but we are both under orders. So, shall we begin?’

Marfach leaned back against the wall, regarding the girl thoughtfully. After some moments, he said;
‘What do you mean by ‘my kind’?’

‘Orcs, or men who sell themselves to ….to Him..’ the girl replied, indicating the East, and Mordor, with a curt, contemptuous nod of her head. She did not want to speak the name of Sauron. Marfach replied;
‘I am not an orc, or a man either, whether sold or not…’
‘A Bad Elf, then’ she said shortly.
‘I am not an Elf, bad or good’
‘Well, whatever you are’ the girl retorted.
‘If you don’t know what I am….’ Asked Marfach carefully. ‘…how can you mend me?'

The girl sighed and put her head on one side, raising an eyebrow.
‘I never said I could mend you. I said I was ordered to try.’
‘You should be a general in charge of a great army, my lady’ replied Marfach with a crooked smile. ‘you have an excellent sense of strategy; it is impossible to outflank you…’

Although his rudeness had not deterred her, the stern young woman was knocked off balance by this gently mocking compliment. She coloured, then, seeing Marfach grinning, she said sharply;
‘Enough talk. Take off your tunic….’

Realising that further resistance would only draw more barbed comments, and seeing that this Healer intended to do her duty whatever he said or did, Marfach stood up, painfully undid his tunic, stained with blood and dirt, and began to pull his torn mail shirt over his head.

When he stood up Marfach towered over the girl. As he wriggled out of his bloody chain mail, his head covered, she looked with curiosity at his long, pale body, so lean she could count the ribs, and count also the silver-white scars that criss-crossed his fine skin. Powerful muscles rippled as he pulled off the heavy mail shirt, then Marfach emerged breathless, and looking through his unkempt long red hair he smiled crookedly at the girl.

The Healer picked up her bowl and avoiding Marfach’s gaze she concentrated on his wound. The blood had dried the metal links into the cut and when the mail was taken off the deep gash was pulled open and began to bleed freely.

Marfach threw the mail shirt on the ground with a clink and thump and sank back against the wall, gasping with pain, his senses swimming. At once he felt strong, slender fingers holding a dressing to staunch the blood. He bit back the pain and kept his eyes closed. There was the trickle of water as the girl lifted a soaked cloth from the brass basin and began to clean the wound. The pain got worse. Marfach kept his eyes closed and imagined himself far away, under trees. It was a trick that helped when he was in pain, or in boring company. The girl worked quickly and silently. At last Marfach felt something like wet leaves being placed on the wound. It stung, and he drew in his breath with a sharp hiss and opened his eyes.

‘That hurt!’ he said accusingly. The girl looked up from putting the poultice on the wound, surprise in her face. She went to say something then stopped. Marfach nodded and snarled at her;.
‘Go on, say what you were about to say it; beasts like me should not feel pain….’

The girl coloured slightly, then bent and continued with dressing the wound. Neither of them spoke for some time. At last the Healer threw the used dressings in the brass bowl and taking a roll of snow-white bandage from the wicker basket by her side she bent over and began to wind it about Marfach’s chest to hold the poultice in place.

As she pinned the last turn of the bandage to his chest, she looked up and met Marfach’s eyes.

For a moment, she stared at him, fascinated despite herself by Marfach's eyes, the colour of amber with tiny gold flecks in them, like leaves trapped above a blazing fire. But what caught her attention was not the gold flecks, but the ring of red, like the spines of a tiny wheel, that rimmed his eye, and seemed to glow. Light came and went, attracted to this red aura. The healer stared into it, held against her will. Then suddenly he blinked, and leaned back. He said in a tired voice;
‘I do not expect someone like you to understand, but I am neither a servant of Sauron nor evil. But you are right, for a long time, I was. And some people who are skilled in healing cannot allow for the healing of a soul. You have done your duty, now leave me….’

And lying down awkwardly, Marfach turned his face to the wall, and settled down to sleep.

The girl, thus rudely and unexpectedly dismissed, stood for some time, her face creased into a frown, her fingers jerkily winding up a bandage. At last she gave a shrug, then reached out and touched Marfach’s shoulder. He slowly rolled over and looked up at her.
‘Yes?’ he asked in an even voice.
‘I…I am sorry.’ The healer said. ‘I was rude, I apologise…’
‘You are not sorry…’ said Marfach quietly. ‘ don’t apologise’
And he turned away again. The girl’s face showed distress.
‘You don’t understand!’ she burst out. Marfach looked round.
‘You are not a man! And those who were men, and beloved of the city, are dead, or dying, while the likes of you yet live…..’

She threw the wound up bandage into the basket and whisked it up and began to walk away. But a long, lean arm and a weatherbeaten hand shot out and seized her wrist in a grip of iron.
‘Lady….’ said Marfach quietly. ‘…I can’t give you back your loved ones, nor give them back the lives they have lost. But by my life, which is the only oath I have left, I will spend what time I am granted in saving what remains of this city and your people. This I have sworn to your king, and now to you, and it is truth, which I will prove, or die in failing.’

The girl stood still, frowning. She thought to reply that words such as those are easily said, but the fierce light suddenly arising in those strange red eyes told her that Marfach meant what he said. On his side, Marfach guessed that perhaps one of those who rode away never to return had been someone whom she loved. He knew no words of his could heal that grief. With a sigh, he relinquished her hand.

‘I am sure there are many who need your skills…’ he said. ‘…you had better go and minister to them as well….’

The girl looked at him for some time. At least she said;
‘I do not know what you are, or how I should treat you. But your wounds are those of a man, and your blood is as red as mine. What name do you have?’

Marfach smiled wryly.
‘I was given the name Croga, The Brave by the Elves, on account of my feats in battle. But the Rohirrim gave me the name Marfach, Killer of men, for my …other feats. You can take your pick, Lady Healer. But I would prefer Croga….’

For the first time a smile lit the girl’s face.
‘If Gandalf the White wants you to be healed, then you cannot be entirely bad. And you bear pain bravely, so I will call you by the name you were first given, for that at least I know to be true, Croga the Brave. Goodbye, till later….’

Awkwardly standing up, Marfach managed a courteous bow.
‘Goodbye to you also, my lady….’ He inclined his head with a questioning look in his eyes. The girl said;
‘Call me Claran, for that is the name most know me by….’
‘Claran…..’ repeated Marfach. ‘…clear as a diamond…’
The girl looked embarrassed. Marfach nodded.
‘You are well named, Claran. Till we meet again….farewell….’

After the Last Council had concluded, the leaders and princes of the West dispersed, walking slowly from the great hall of the Steward’s palace, talking in hushed voices, their faces sombre. It could not be otherwise, for Aragorn had asked all present at the council to risk their lives, and those of their people, in one last, desperate battle to distract Sauron and give Frodo a chance to reach Mount Doom…..

As their captains and lieutenants passed out of the door before them, Imrahil the Fair, now acting as Steward of Gondor, laid one hand on the heavy brass handle and with the other he beckoned Aragorn and Gandalf.

They turned and followed the prince of Dol Amroth. He was tall and fair and grey-eyed, like all his kind, and wore a blue tunic embroidered with a silver swan. He led them to the Octagon, a wide round space behind the throne of Gondor, with great high arcaded windows from which in times gone by the Steward could look out over his realm….

In the centre of the room stood a round wooden table, inlaid with semi-precious stones and ringed with high-backed wooden chairs. Imrahil indicated these.

‘Sit, please, Lord Aragorn, and you too, Gandalf the White….’

Aragorn took a seat and folded his arms, waiting patiently. Gandalf regarded Imrahil with something like caution. The Prince caught his look and raising a hand in a conciliatory gesture he said;

‘Mithrandir, I must ask your pardon; I intended no discourtesy by reminding you in council that I am next in line to inherit the Stewardship, and that it is too soon to speak of any king, even one who is descended from the most true lineage….’

And Imrahil bowed to Aragorn, who shifted uneasily in his chair. Gandalf nodded but did not reply. Imrahil went on;
‘You must understand that however deceived he was by the enemy and his own counsels in the last days, Denethor was our Steward, and was loved and respected by all the people. It would be too much on a wound too raw to speak of taking from his only surviving son the Stewardship, and conferring instead kingship on one as yet untried in the eyes of the people….’
‘Untried!’ burst out Gandalf. ‘…and what about the battle of the Pelennor? And the summoning of the Army of the Dead, which saved the day? And the relief of the city….?’

Now it was Aragorn who raised a hand.
‘Please, I beg you, Mithrandir. Let the Prince speak…..’

Gandalf subsided muttering into his chair. Imrahil inclined his head in a bow to Aragorn.
‘My thanks, lord Aragorn. If you will but wait a little while, Mithrandir, your patience will be rewarded. Let me explain….’

Imrahil stood up and paced to the window. The shutters had been drawn down at the start of the siege. But some stray missile had smashed into one of them, breaking the bars and sending the slats hurtling down to the courtyard below where they shattered into a hundred pieces. Now, through a gaping, splintered hole, Imrahil could see the battered and smoking city of Minas Tirith. He sighed and began to speak.

‘I have been much engrossed with the defence of my own realm of Dol Amroth, but even so in my comings to and goings from Denethor, I sensed that something was deeply amiss with the Steward. His final possession….’
And here Imrahil cast a meaningful glance at Gandalf ‘….I will not call it madness. The Denethor I knew was not mad….his possession in the final hours of the siege was but the result of a burden borne too long, and too much alone.’

Imrahil paused, as if waiting for an argument. But Gandalf was silent. Aragorn merely nodded.
‘I claimed the Stewardship not for myself, not even for Faramir, who lies so sore wounded. I claimed it for the House of Denethor, that the Stewardship would not be seen to be snatched away from them, as if in punishment for what Denethor did….’

Gandalf raised his eyebrows, but did not speak. Aragorn nodded again, his face pensive. Imrahil walked over to him and stood before him. Aragorn looked up in surprise and Imrahil bowed his head.
‘I acknowledge your claim to the throne of Gondor, and will never hinder it. Do you let the house of Denethor enjoy their title till the day you are crowned…’

‘Why right gladly will I do that, Prince Imrahil!’ said Aragorn eagerly, speaking for the first time ’….to Faramir, and to you acting in his stead, I give Stewardship of this city, till I enter her gates as king….’

Imrahil smiled, but from Gandalf there came a warning growl.
‘That will only happen if we are victorious. If we fail, you merely barter an empty throne, Imrahil….’

Now it was the wizard’s turn to stand and pace to the window to look out.
‘I know not if you have ambitions of your own, Prince Imrahil. If you have, we would hear them now…’

Prince Imrahil did not take this request with surprise or annoyance. He just nodded.
‘In these times, when so many have been won by lies to the side of Mordor, you are right to ask!’ he said. Then he shook his head and laughed and threw himself into a chair, and covered his eyes for a moment.

Gandalf and Aragorn looked at him, waiting for him to speak. Imrahil sat back in the high chair, his long legs stretched out before him, his chain mail scuffed and stained from battle, his blue silk tunic with the swan emblem dark with smoke and grime. But even tired and besmirched with dirt his face was fair, pale-skinned with piercing grey eyes and long dark hair, a face of Elves.

‘We are alone now, my lord Aragorn and Mithrandir. Amonhst ourselves, we can admit, there is almost no hope that we can win this battle. When we ride out to meet the enemy at the Gates of Mordor, we go on our last journey….’

Gandalf looked down at the floor. Aragorn frowned.
‘I believe there is yet hope, Prince Imrahil’ he said. ‘…I have lived by that belief, and will not let it go now, whatever the danger we face….’
‘And by that same hope will we follow you, Aragorn’ said Imrahil. Then he turned to Gandalf and said;
‘You ask what my intentions are, Mithrandir. I tell you, only to see Aragorn on the throne. But even that might be a day I shall never live to celebrate. As for myself, I have no ambition, for this city or any other, save only to rule my own people in peace. Because you should know this: my wife and my son, the queen and prince of Dol Amroth, who were my life and my only future, were lost years ago in an attack by orcs on the White Havens. I can never wed again, and I am the last of my line….’

Gandalf looked up quickly, his face showing surprise and compassion.
‘My lord Prince…’ he said ‘I never knew of this! When did it happen….?’

Prince Imrahil waved a hand in a tired gesture.
‘It is old history, Mithrandir. Nine, ten years ago my princess was sent to the White Havens, for safety as I thought, during the wars which saw Boromir regain Osgiliath. But as he gained a city, so we lost one, the White Havens and all who were in it. There were no survivors to tell me what happened, but it seems that my lady was slain. Her body was discovered in the ruins after the siege. But of my son, no trace was ever found….’

Imrahil smiled sadly at Aragorn.
‘So, you see my lord Aragorn, hope comes too late for me. But I will serve you as Steward in these last days, and not hinder your ascent to the Throne of the Seven Stars…’ and Imrahil threw out his hand to indicate the throne at the top of the flight of steps just a few feet away from them. ‘if….if…you win the battle.’

Aragorn bowed his head, and for some time they all sat in silence. Then Imrahil said;
‘I have seen only a little of you, my Lord Aragorn. But from that I can tell that if you live to rule Gondor, it will not be a rule such as Denethor upheld in his time. For you are slow to break or sweep away even that which is against your liking. You wait patiently for men to change, and do not force your will upon them. Among great lords, you speak last, and softest. I think your rule will be for the people, and of the people. For myself, I am glad to see it. Too many kings have ruled badly, and led their people to their doom.....'

Imrahil turned to the broken window and said in a low voice, almost to himself;

....whether we ride to defeat or victory, I know that this time is a twilight for princes…..’