The Dragon and the Fox

by Varda

Chapter 87: One Last Journey

Some hours after Liofa and Marfach had passed out through the Great Gate of Minas Tirith Dearfa the Elf and Seolta the Ranger also arrived at the battered doors of the city. They knew the password, and easily moved through the last stragglers making their way in from the plain as darkness fell. Having left behind the looming walls of the city, still lit up by persistent fires, they set off across the Pelennor.

This was no time to pick up a trail, especially across a battlefield, but Dearfa never faltered from the time the two passed out of the gates. Seeming to track as much by instinct as by sight he led his companion in a straight, unwavering line across the chaos of the Pelennor to the river, then as dawn lightened the gloomy sky over Mordor, they bent their way East.

They had tracked in silence all night, but when he saw the way they were going, Seolta asked;
‘They are heading for the road to Mordor, right into the realm of Sauron, are they not?’

Dearfa looked even more grim than usual.
‘If any further proof was required that this Marfach is a traitor, well we have it now. He is making his way straight to his master in the Black Land…..’

Seolta was not so sure. In fact, after assuming that Marfach had snatched Liofa, he had thought more about it, and now he was not at all certain that was what had happened. But he said nothing to the Elf, for he knew that men may change their minds, but Elves are constant as the earth itself. Any suggestion to Dearfa that they had made a mistake and should just go back to the city would be greeted with blank incomprehension. Seolta knew that Dearfa would just go on, alone if necessary, for the Elf intended to slay Marfach or die in the attempt.

After a long, weary night picking their way across the battlefield under a sky whose stars were hidden in a thick black reek of smoke, daybreak found them with their path blocked by the river. The tracks, Dearfa told Seolta, led to the bank, then vanished.

‘I would say they found some raft or other barque by which to cross….’said the tall grim Elf. ‘….there are marks here in the mud which were made by a keel. Most of the ships were burned in the battle, either by the orcs or by the forces of Gondor. But something must have been left that they could use as a boat..’

Seolta looked at the marks, but although he was a skilled tracker, he could not see what the Elf saw. Gazing at the tracks, Dearfa said;
‘One figure was tall and heavier than the other. The second was lighter and smaller, and moved with dragging feet….’
Dearfa looked at Seolta.
‘Even the tracks tell me a story; one was the leader, and the other the unwilling follower.’
‘Then there is hope for Liofa!’ exclaimed Seolta. ‘If indeed the tracks tell us he is being taken against his will. Do not when we overtake them be too hasty to slay the Elf as well!’

Dearfa gazed at Seolta, and his face was impassive.
‘Be that as it may, I will decide when we find them.’

And with that the Elf got up from where he had knelt down by the river and began to scout for something by which they could cross the Anduin. Seolta felt cold; it seemed clear to him now that Dearfa intended to kill both Marfach and Liofa, and not worry about who was guilty or who was not. Seolta sighed and got to his feet and followed the Elf.
‘This pursuit was my idea….’ he thought grimly. ‘…and if it rids the world of Marfach it will have attained a great good....but what will happen to Liofa? Catching Marfach is not worth his life....'.

Marfach and Liofa had crossed the river at dusk on a fire-damaged barge that Marfach, with his keen eyesight, had spotted run up against the columns of one of the broken bridges of Osgiliath. They baled out the few inches of water that had slopped over the low sides into the bottom of the boat, then got in and steered it by a single oar out into the current. The boat still stank of its cargo of orcs, and the two found it hard to sit at ease as they crossed. They also had to struggle to keep the battered craft steering straight against the strong tide of the Anduin, rushing along in full flood. After half an hour of hard work at the oar, they made landfall on the far bank, and quickly drew the boat up after them and hid it as best they could under the singed and splintered trees at the water’s edge.

Then Marfach straightened up and drew in a deep breath, looking out at the smoke-wreathed land before them.
‘Mordor!’ he said under his breath. He looked at Liofa. ‘That is where I am going, harpist. Do you really want to go with me?’

Liofa was taken aback. He had not asked Marfach where he was going. He had assumed that he was on some errand of secrecy for Aragorn the King. Now he was thrown into doubt.
‘Why?’ he blurted out. ‘Why are you going to Mordor?’
‘I was entrusted with an errand by the King’ replied Marfach. Then he smiled. ‘But I am not going to do what Aragorn ordered me to…’

An icy hand closed on Liofa’s heart.
‘Why not?’ he asked in a strangled voice.
‘Because….’ replied Marfach. ‘….Aragorn wants me to act as some scout, to find out for him where the enemy is, so he can pass them by and reach the Black Gates. I know more than he told me, Liofa. For some reason he did not risk letting me know, he wants to join with Sauron in battle, to draw the Dark Lord out with all the forces he has…’

‘That is madness!’ cried Liofa. Marfach nodded.
‘Yes, it is. And perhaps Sauron will think it is madness too and refuse to be tempted.’
Marfach looked at Liofa and smiled grimly
‘And what then? Aragorn’s desperate plan will fail….’

Liofa did not reply. None of this sounded like anything other than an invitation to disaster. Marfach went on;
‘But if Sauron thought Aragorn had that which he seeks, that certain treasure….’
‘The Ring’ said Liofa dully.

Long ago Liofa had been snatched from his home in the Kingdom of Mirkwood by the orcs of Dol Guldur as he guarded the creature Gollum. Listening to Gollum’s ravings as they lay bound in captivity, Liofa had pieced together the truth about this Ring, and the knowledge had followed him like a doom ever since. Now, it seemed, it would indeed be his final doom….

‘If the Dark Lord thinks that Aragorn has this thing….’ said Marfach. ‘then he will try to reverse the events of that terrible day when Isildur cut it from his very hand. Sauron will come at Aragorn in battle, not hesitating, thinking that he has the Ring but does not know yet how to wield it …’

‘But….’ said Liofa. ‘…how can you on your own persuade The Dark Lord?’
‘I am Sauron’s creature of old…’ said Marfach with a cold smile. ‘He will believe his most loyal servant…’

Liofa stared at Marfach for a long time. Then he stammered;
‘I don’t believe you. I think Sauron is the Lord of Lies, and he will be able to see through a lie. He will see through you, and force you to tell the truth. Then, Aragorn will be betrayed, and all the hopes of the West will be lost!’

Marfach did not reply. He was not smiling any more. At last he said;
‘Liofa, I think you should leave me and go back to Minas Tirith. It is true, under the ways Sauron has of warping and torturing a mind, he might find out the truth, more easily from you than from me, for I have encountered his methods before and I know how to defend myself and what to say…’
He turned his strange red eyes on Liofa and said in a cold voice;
‘…I have powers that even Sauron does not know of. But it is not so for you. It is you who might betray Aragorn. Return to the city now….’

Liofa was silent. This was a fearsome choice. If Sauron did not believe Marfach they would both be tortured, and Liofa was not sure he would not reveal the truth. But if he returned to Minas Tirith, he would have lost the friendship of men and Elves, and be nothing more than an outcast for all time.

‘I am going with you’ he replied at last. ‘You are wrong to think I will reveal anything. I was forced to reveal this secret of the Ring once, to Saruman, but that was long ago. I will never reveal it again, not even to Sauron, whatever torture he might inflict on me…’

Aragorn at first felt stiff and awkward in Elendil's magnificent armour. The pale March sunshine glinted on the elaborately chased breastplate and shimmered on the fine chain mail, no heavier than thick wool, as he walked to the saddling enclosure of the stables of Minas Tirith, where a soldier held Brego ready to bear his master to war.

Aragorn looked down at his vambraces, bright steel with entwined along their length a tree with lofty branches among which were set seven stars. On his head Aragorn wore no helm, despite Gimli's fussing and grumbling. Instead, the better to mark himself out as king, he wore a diadem.

'I know we need to draw out Sauron....' said Legolas doubtfully. 'But do you need to present the enemy with quite such an tempting target? If you die in battle we are undone...'
'No you will not be undone...' replied Aragorn quietly, letting Gandalf fasten the great night-blue cloak at his shoulder with a silver star brooch. 'There will always be brave men to guide Gondor...'
'I must agree with Legolas...' said Gandalf. 'There are indeed brave men aplenty in Gondor; but there is only one King. It is you who is needed at this time and in this conflict.'
The wizard sighed. 'At least this armour has been made by the best....' here he winked at Gimli. ' Dwarves!'

Normally Gimli would have relished this remark, but so sombre and subdued was the whole company that he merely grunted, blushed and busied himself attaching Aragorn's scabbard to his sword belt.

'They feel this could be the end...' thought Aragorn. 'And what do I know but that it might be, for us and for Gondor and all Middle Earth?'

The sun just then broke free of a long trailing cloud of smoke and shed its pale golden light on the dusty yard. As he as he pulled on his mailed gauntlets Aragorn raised his head to feel the faint heat on his face.
'Whatever befalls....' he thought '...yet still the sun will shine, even if through clouds, and the moon rise in beauty to rule the night. Sauron himself cannot destroy all that!'

Slightly cheered, Aragorn swung himself into the saddle, feeling the weight of the armour on his shoulders. He was not accustomed to fighting in plate armour, and hoped it would not hamper his quick reactions in battle. He sighed; he had to dress as a king, at whatever risk.

The gates were hauled open and Aragorn urged Brego out through them. the horse had been liveried in a black and silver saddle and breastplate from the royal stables. From the crupper hung starred straps, and on his breastplate was a silver tree. A heavy silver bridle had been placed on his head, and Brego, sensing the apprehension of the men around him and unused to such elaborate harness, whinnied and shook his head. Aragorn soothed him with a hand on his neck.
'Come, Brego, my loyal friend! Just one more journey. One last campaign, and you can gallop in the meadows all summer long....'

In front of him there stretched a steep, narrow street which led to the Front Square of Minas Tirith. Aragorn urged Brego down it, sensing more than hearing the mounted warriors of Rohan and Gondor falling in behind him. For a grim moment Aragorn remembered riding from the south with the Army of the Dead following in a deadly tide of tarnished helms and rusting spearpoints jagged through the mist. Then he shook his head and the vision was gone.

Brego's wide hooves slithered on the polished cobblestones, and Aragorn steadied him with a word and the tightening of a rein. Then they were at the end of the street and riding across the Front Square of Minas Tirith towards the great gate, following the very course that Faramir had followed as he rode out on his doomed errand to recapture Osgiliath.

The Square was flagged with white stone, but the fiercest of the fighting for the city had taken place on this spot, so the stones were now stained with blood, the black blood of orcs but also the red blood of men. Fire too had fouled the once splendid stone, till now the flags were not smooth and white but pitted and dark. In the centre of the square the statue of Elendil still sat on his great warhorse, but his statue was stained with smoke and his upraised sword was bent and broken.

All around the square, under the elegant colonnades which sheltered the people on market days, stood a great crowd who watched in silence as the mounted men passed over the square, riding in pairs. The sun glinted on armour and spearpoint, and Aragorn, at the head of his troops, felt the eyes of his people upon him, and their desperate hope weighed heavily on his shoulders. By the fountain some women stood, who wordlessly cast before the horses' hooves flowers of white, yellow and purple. The city gardens had mostly been ruined by fire-balls during the fighting, and the flowers of the city were all withered and dead. But early that morning the women had made their way up into the mountains behind the city and there gathered flowers, still beaded with dew, which they now threw before the departing cavalry, their crushed scent rising to sweeten the morning air.

It seemed to Aragorn that it took an age to cross the square, but at last the host passed into the shadow under the gate arch, and then through the ruined doors and out onto the Pelennor.

When he again emerged into the sunlight, even though it was only the smoky air of the battlefield, Aragorn breathed a sigh of relief. Despite the devastation all round, he was glad to leave behind the anxious gaze of his people. Out here he had a freedom akin to that freedom he had known as a Ranger in the wilds of the North. For the twentieth time he shifted under the unaccustomed weight of the armour; so much would be different for him as a King of Gondor, he mused. No longer the life of a solitary wolf, ranging the Northern wastes, always in danger, but always having that strange freedom.....

'It will not seem so heavy, after a while...' said a voice behind him, and Aragorn glanced round to see Gandalf had urged Shadowfax up almost level with Brego. Pippin was sitting in front of the wizard in the black and silver livery of a squire of Gondor. Gandalf had a half-smile on his face as if he had read Aragorn's mind.

'What do you mean?' asked Aragorn. Gandalf nodded at the breastplate.
'The armour! It will not seem so heavy after a while....'
Aragorn nodded. He would wear it in, as with a new garment. Then Gandalf said in a low voice, so those following could not hear.
'So too will even a crown feel lighter with use...'

A few paces behind Aragoron, Gimli's sharp ears picked up Gandalf's words, and he snorted. Looking out over the battlefield, the worst devastation of which was hidden by smoke, he thought to himself that he would still prefer to see Aragorn ride into battle in a helmet. Unexpectedly, something made his eyes water and he brushed his sleeve impatiently across them.
'It must be the smoke!' he thought in irritation, but he knew it was not.

In front of Gimli on the horse, Legolas inclined his head slightly and looked back, but seeing the Dwarf's angry expression, he looked away. Legolas too felt a smarting in his eyes, but for him it was a yearning to look out again on green trees and shaded forest meadows. The landscape here was colourless, all black and white and grey. Mordor itself could not be more ashen.

Suddenly a great boom echoed over the plain; the city gates had been dragged shut. The people hurried to crowd the upper walls and look out on the dwindling mass of the departing army. The last few flowers were thrown over the battlements to fall slowly like autumn leaves and settle amongst the ashes of the plain.