The Dragon and the Fox

by Varda

Chapter 88: No Living Man can Kill Me

Aragorn led his army across the Pelennor and eventually the battlefield and the city itself dwindled behind them till it was hidden in a grey mist lying just above the horizon.

The army moved on in silence through the warm spring sunshine. Gandalf rode behind Aragorn with Pippin on the saddle in front of him. The sun beat down on the hobbit's ornate steel helmet making him uncomfortably hot, and his chain-mail shirt weighed heavily on his narrow shoulders. As the army passed out through the city gate, Pippin had wanted to turn and look up, sure as he was that Merry would be out on the terrace of the Houses of Healing, watching him leave.

But everyone else had their face set dourly to the front, and Pippin dared not make a disgrace of himself by turning and waving, as if they were setting out on a summer bathing expedition. Yet his heart ached to leave Merry behind. He was painfully aware that he was the only hobbit in this army of great warriors, men of Rohan and Gondor and their allies, and even Elves, their own Legolas but also the sons of Elrond, Elrohir and Elladan.

Along by the road there grew low trees and hedges, and they were all bursting out in spring blossoms and fresh green leaves. Birds darted among the branches and sang as if there was no such thing as war. Pippin looked longingly at the snowy flowers of the whitethorn. More than anything he yearned to take off his helmet and feel the cool breeze in his curly hair, and run on the fresh new grass in his bare feet. He thought of the Shire and what spring must be like there.

'The robins will be building their nests in the hawthorn, and the blackbirds will be singing all through the long bright evenings!' he thought with a sigh.
'They'll be a-ploughing the fields for the summer barley, and Bag End will be all dusted out and spring cleaned! If Lobelia bothers to clean it, that is.....' Pip added, with a frown. Lobelia would probably not bother to take care of Frodo's old home once she had failed to find any hidden treasure in it. But still, Pippin yearned to see it again.
'Oh I so wish I was in The Shire, and not here, riding to I know not what awful fate!'

Just then Pip heard a bird cry, and it was not a blackbird or a thrush or robin. It was a long keening cry that made the whole army look up in alarm, remembering the Nazgul and their shrieking attacks during the battle of the Pelennor.

But these were no Nazgul, only great white and grey seabirds. When the wind was from the South, they often flew as far as Minas Tirith, riding the upcurrents over the warm grasslands. Seeing that they were only gulls, the men shrugged and looked down again.

But riding alongside Pippin, Legolas did not look down. Shading his keen Elvish eyes with his hand he gazed long at the birds, and there was dismay on his face.
'Alas for the crying of the gulls! Now I know I will never be at peace in Middle Earth, even if the battle goes well for us....'

Gimli, seated behind Legolas, plucked at the Elf's sleeve.
'Don't say so, my friend! There is so much to do and see yet in Middle Earth before you seek the Grey Havens! You would not break your promise to your old Dwarf friend to come and visit the realms of his folk?'

Legolas dropped his hand then and looked down and sighed and shook his head.
'No, Gimli, I will keep my promise and not disappoint you....but in my heart now there is a great longing for the sea, even though I never saw it before. I will not be truly happy again in Middle Earth....'

Gimli and Legolas fell silent then, and Pippin rode on thinking that even an Elf could yearn for a home, even one he had never seen.

As many of the men had lost their horses in the Battle of the Pelennor, a large part of the army went afoot, and so progress was slow. They skirted the ruined city of Osgiliath where teams laboured to repair the defences against more attacks. Then Aragorn led the army North, and they came to the Crossroads, where a statue of a King of Gondor of old still stood headless by the roadside as he had when Frodo and Sam passed this way led by Gollum.

'Set that right!' ordered Aragorn, his face suddenly pale with anger despite the heat. A detachment of soldiers ran to lift the flower-wreathed head from the long grass and set it once again on the statue. They did not disturb the flowers. The orc-head they threw down and smashed, and cleaned off the slogans daubed on the king by the enemy.

Sitting on Brego in front of the statue, Aragorn looked up and thought he saw the ghost of a smile on the stone face of the King. He bowed his head slightly and smiled back.
'For a while, old King, you can rule again. Even if it is only for a little while, till we fools are beaten once more....'

Four days after they passed the Crossroads, Aragorn and his host reached the end of the living lands, and gazed out across the desolation that lay before Cirith Ungol. In one direction lay the marshes and in the other jagged ridge upon ridge of the Emyn Muil. Nothing lived in those lands, and no bird flew over them. From deep fissures in the rocks there issued fumes of gas and steam that poisoned all life above the earth. Even to look on the place cowed the spirit.

At this moment, after days of marching with only a hopeless battle to look forward to, many of the younger men of Rohan, from the Westfold, and farmers from Lossarnach came to Aragorn and begged to be allowed to go home. They said that they did not understand what this battle was for, and they did not want to die for nothing.

The army had halted for a mid-day rest, and the horses had been led aside to water at the bright rill of a little stream that was probably the last fresh water they would find before the Black Gates. Gimli sat on a fallen tree trunk and took out a whetstone and noisily sharpened his axe, fixing the body of men who wanted to leave with a glare from under his bushy eyebrows. Legolas leaned on his bow and gazed thoughtfully at the men.

Aragorn counted the unwilling soldiers and sadly realised that their departure would greatly diminish his army. But he let them go, urging them only to try to retake the fortress of Cair Andros from the enemy as they passed it.

As the host drew off down the road along which they had only just come, Gandalf said to Aragorn;
'Isildur would not have been as forgiving!'
Aragorn shook his head.
'What else can I do, Gandalf?' he asked with a sigh. 'If I curse them and brand them as cowards they and their descendents will be my foes, and the war will never end. I do not want to make another Army of the Dead!. Yet if I force them to fight they will let us down. They are young, and they want to see their farms and their fields again, their families and their land. I cannot find it in my heart to blame them!'

Watching from a distance, Pippin thought to himself;
'So I am not the only one who wants to go home! Well, at least this Took did not turn round and go back to the Shire. I have that comfort; at the last, I did not run away. But then....' and Pip knit his brows and looked about at the army. '....of all here, only a few know about Frodo and Sam and their errand to Mount Doom. If these men knew about Frodo, they would not turn back!'

Then Pippin remembered how unwilling Frodo had been to let him come on the journey. Pippin sighed.
'You were right, Frodo. It is too much for a little hobbit like me. But how much worse would it have been if I had been left behind in the Shire while you faced danger alone. I would have died from shame!'
Pippin smiled to himself. 'There must be something of the Old Took in me after all.....'

Some distance from the main encampment of the army, taking their meagre mid-day meal under some willows by the same stream, the Rangers of the Black Company glumly watched the men of Rohan and Lossarnach marching away.

The took their rest gladly, because they were all footsore from marching. During the muster of the army in Minas Tirith, the men of Rohan had recognised the horses the Rangers had stolen from them, and had demanded them back.

There had been some tense moments; hands had been laid on sword hilts. But eventually Eomer had intervened.
'What is all this?' he had stormed. 'You are all on the same side, for shame!'
Then he said to the Black Company;
'We only take back what is ours because we have need of them. But keep a dozen, if you have to, we would not make you all go afoot...'

The giant Ranger Teagar shook his head and said with a bow;
'Thank you for your offer, my lord Eomer, but we no longer need your horses. We learned to walk a long time ago....'
The only horse they kept was Realt, the little black Haradrim pony their leader Callanach rode, because no-one else could master him.

Now Callanach sat in the shade watching the retreating host. Over the past few days he had thought of little else but Marfach and Liofa, and how he had allowed them to be pursued, and perhaps killed. He kept apart from the men at night, and did not speak to anyone. Now he saw the leader of the Elves of the Black Company, Rosc, walking over to him. The Elf handed him some barley bread and a hard piece of dried beef. Callanach took a listless bite then looking up at Rosc he asked.
'Don't you and your Elves want to be with your own kind?'

And he nodded towards where Elladan and Elrohir sat together apart from the rest of the army.

Rosc sighed and sat down beside Callanach.
'When will you understand, Ranger...' he said in a quiet voice; '....that our place is with you. Firstly because we were sent to fight with you by the Lady Galadriel. But then because you are our friends and comrades, and we do not wish to leave you....'

Callanach sat in silence, ashamed of his question. Rosc said gently;
'The men want to know what you think about those who turned back and left the army...'

Callanach traced a line in the dry earth with a twig. He knew his friendship with Marfach made him tainted in the eyes of his men.
'I don't believe they care what I think' he replied. Rosc got to his feet and said in a low voice;
'You are wrong; speak to your men, Storm....' and he walked away.

Callanach looked around. Rosc was right; the men were talking quietly amongst themselves, but their eyes were on him. He threw away the hard crust of bread he had only taken a bite from and standing up he said to them;
'Do any of you want to go as well? If you do, now is the time to speak....'

There was a moment's silence, then one of the men said;
'You are our leader, Callanach. Whatever you order us to do, we will do...'

Callanach looked at the man and felt tears sting his eyes. For days he had tormented himself with the thought that he had betrayed his friends, and suspected that his friendship with Marfach had made him a traitor in his own men's eyes. He could not understand at all why they had insisted he should be leader of the Black Company. Now, all of a sudden, the Rangers got to their feet, gathered round him and repeated what their comrade had said;
'What you order us to do, Callanach son of Feolchu, we will do!'

Hastily brushing his sleeve across his eyes, Callanach faced his men and waved a hand at the retreating soldiers.
'They are going back to their homes. But our home was the Kingdom of Arnor, and the Enemy destroyed it many ages ago. Now, in Aragorn we have hope that once again Arnor might rise from its ashes. Our place is fighting at the side of Elessar the King, and we are not leaving!'

At this the men raised a cheer, and some drew their swords, held them up and called out Callanach's name and that of King Elessar. Unable to speak any more, Callanach acknowledged their cheers with a raised hand and a smile. As the men turned away, Teager the giant Ranger caught his eye and winked....

Barely a day before Aragorn and his army left the City, Marfach and Liofa rested by the banks of the Anduin for a few hours after running all night. Then they started off again, this time with Marfach setting a fast pace that Liofa, still recovering from his wounds, found hard to keep up with. But he did not complain; he guessed that Marfach was hoping he would drop back and give up. Night came, and although Elves do not sleep the two rested for a while in a thicket of birch trees within sight of the Anduin.

They were now out in the open countryside of North Ithilien. The people had long ago been driven from this land, and it had become overrun with orcs, especially since Faramir and his Rangers were recalled to the city. Not as lush as Southern Ithilien, this was a country of low rolling hills with stands of birch and alder and ash growing in the hollows. The river ran through great banks of reeds and herons flapped lazily across the steel-coloured water. There was an unnatural quiet on the land; most of the servants of the Enemy who had swarmed over this area had been destroyed in the Battle of the Pelennor. But before the conflict, hosts of orcs and Easterlings had flattened and smashed their way through the little woods and fouled the tiny streams that fed into the Anduin. Now, the land was silent and sad, as if it waited for the final act in a sequence of tragic and cruel events..

Some time in the afternoon they came on a road, broken and overgrown in places, but still recognisable as a great thoroughfare from the times of Gondor’s former glory. It was in fact the ancient road that led from the Tower of the Sun to the Tower of the Moon, Minas Ithil, now Minas Morgul with its broken towers and stained walls.

Marfach was not sure about following an open road.
‘We will be easily seen…’ he said half to himself.
‘Seen by whom?’ asked Liofa.. Marfach glanced back over his shoulder.
‘By those who are following us’ he replied.

Liofa stood in front of Marfach to block his path.
‘We are being followed?’ he demanded.

Marfach nodded.
‘Since we left the city. Two hunters, I think. And one of them is an Elf…’

Liofa’s heart gave a painful leap.
‘An Elf?’ He repeated as if unable to understand. Marfach shrugged.
‘If you travel with me, expect to be treated as an enemy, and hunted….’

And Marfach walked on, keeping his swift pace, his eyes on the road and the land around, now and then checking the sky and the woods in the distance that marked the course of the river.

Liofa ran after him, unwilling to pester Marfach with more questions. After some thought, he realised that he could answer them himself; his absence from the Houses of Healing had been noticed and someone had set out to follow him, perhaps thinking that he had been stolen away. Liofa shook his head. This was getting worse, and it would end in killing, even without the enemy being involved.

‘Marfach!’ he said running to catch up with his companion. ‘Let us wait for those who are following us. We can explain our errand…’

Marfach stopped and looked at Liofa in disbelief.
‘Liofa, think what you are saying. If they know I am going to Mordor to speak to Sauron, they will kill us for sure. Or try to…’ he added grimly.
‘Our best hope is to keep ahead of them till we find some servants of Sauron, or enter Mordor. But it will not be easy; one of our pursuers is an Elf, and Elves track swiftly. You must make better time, Liofa….’

And so despite his misgivings, and now afraid of both friend and foe, Liofa had to struggle to keep up with Marfach, who had taken to loping along the road like a wolf, never tiring, and always vigilant.

By early evening they reached the crossroads of the ancient highway. Here, the road that led to the North, to the Morannon, intersected that which led to Minas Morghul. A strong, clean wind from the West had cleared the sky and a pale March sun lit up the birch woods and filled the land with a fair golden light. But towards the East the long broken slopes of the Ephel Duath, the Mountains of Shadow, loomed like a threat and in the sky beyond them there ever lingered a glow of red and a column of black smoke, marking the unseen Mountain of Doom.

Set close to the crossroads was a seated statue, broken and despoiled by orcs. Once, it had been a king of Gondor, guarding the two roads. But the enemy had knocked the head off and replaced it with a grinning orc face. In the long grass by the roadside the old king’s head, still with its stone crown, lay half-embedded in the ground. Moss had softened the stern, warlike features and delicate white spring flowers had clambered over the crown, making it seem more a part of the surrounding woodland than something made by the hand of man.

For once, Marfach stopped his swift run to look at the statue and the crowned head lying in the grass. Liofa panted to a halt beside him.
‘Do you think there will ever be a king in Gondor again?’ he asked..
‘If I have any part in it, there will' Marfach replied grimly.

They turned then and took the road North. They had hoped to find some servants of the Dark Lord in these lands, and give themselves up to them. But there was no-one left in this place, and there was nothing to do now but follow the road to the Morannan, and enter Mordor by the Black Gates. Liofa turned his face Northward with a heavy heart, and settled into a swift run alongside Marfach when suddenly his companion stopped and raised his head as if smelling some scent of danger on the wind.
‘What is it?’ asked Liofa. ‘Is it our pursuers?’
‘Hush!’ snapped Marfach, raising his hand. Liofa fell silent, also looking around. Then, suddenly, Marfach threw himself flat on the stone road. Just a heartbeat after he did so, a javelin, gleaming black and silver, sailed over his head and embedded its long narrow point in the hard earth beside the roadway.

Liofa threw himself down beside Marfach, but his companion, raising himself on his hands, looked towards a thicket of dead and blasted thorn bushes, then calmly got to his feet and called out;
‘You have thrown your spear; now you only have your sword. Why not come out and see if we are really the enemy before you waste any more strength, and maybe your blood….’

For some moments there was silence, then a tall figure, clad in a grey-green cloak of shimmering material and a shirt of fine silver mail, stood out from behind an ash tree and began to walk towards them, bearing in his head a long, shining sword.

Although he moved with a limp, the man was tall and carried himself with a proud, fearless demeanour. His long hair, light gold in colour, streamed out behind him in the wind and his fair, pale face with its grey eyes was stern and wary. As soon as he came into view, Liofa recognised him.
‘Crionna?’ he called out, then got to his feet and ran towards the man.
‘Crionna! It is you!’

The figure stopped in astonishment, and waited as Liofa ran up to him. Then the Elf stopped too, as if unsure what to do or say. Crionna looked him up and down then shook his head and said with a laugh of disbelief;.
‘Liofa! We gave you up for dead….’
Liofa laughed too.‘Well I am not dead, or at least not yet. It is so good to see you again!’

And Liofa embraced Crionna. This Ranger, once the leader of the Black Company, was known to them as An Siofra or The Elf, because he so closely resembled their Numenorean ancestors in looks and bearing. Now, however, Liofa noticed that Crionna's left arm hung uselessly at his side, and there was a half-healed scar on his cheekbone. His smile faded.
‘What happened to you, Crionna?’

The Ranger looked at Liofa, wondering how he could tell him of his wounding at the Battle of the Ford, and his rescue and healing by the Ents Elmfoot and Ashwing, on Gandalf's orders. How could he describe an ent, even to an Elf...? But then he saw that Liofa wore the green and gold cloak of the King of Rohan's guard, and he replied;
‘Much has happened to me, Liofa. And I see that much has happened to you too. But perhaps now is not the time to speak of it….’

Then he nodded at Marfach.
‘…first, you must tell me who this is, and why you are with him….’

Liofa's face fell. He knew that to anyone they might meet, Marfach looked like a servant of Sauron. And Crionna had been leader of the Black Company when Marfach had snatched him from their camp.

‘It is a long tale, Crionna…’ replied Liofa. ‘…and not all of it is for this place. Enough is it to say that we are both on an errand of the King’s…’
‘Aragorn?’ asked Crionna, remembering what he had learned during his time in Minas Tirith. Liofa nodded.

Crionna drew a deep breath and thought for a moment. Once, he would simply have taken Liofa’s word. But he had spent too long in a Minas Tirith darkened by the suspicion and despair of Denethor. He no longer felt he could trust anyone, even Liofa. He put a hand on his hilt and drew his sword.
‘I think, Liofa…’ he said. ‘…that I must make my own mind up about this friend of yours…’

Liofa’s face registered dismay, but Marfach just smiled and also drew his sword.
‘Whatever you want, Ranger.’ He said. ‘I am on an errand of the King that can brook no delay. If I have to kill you to get on with my task, I will….’

Liofa stepped between them, shaking his head.
'Don't do this, I beg you both! It is madness, we are on the same side!'
'The same side as this wolf's-head?' growled Crionna. 'That will be the day!'
Then he looked at Liofa and said;
'Do not hinder me, old friend. I don't want to shed your blood too...'

Liofa backed away, his face pale and his fists clenched with frustration.
'You are making a mistake, Crionna...!'
'Not for the first time....' thought the Ranger under his breath.

Marfach was standing with his sword drawn and a slight smile on his thin face. A bitter, ragged wind out of the North tugged at his long red dreadlocks.
'If I were you, Ranger...' he said quietly. '....I would listen to your friend. You are making a mistake. Not only am I on your side, but you can't win...'

Crionna raised his eyebrows.
'Is that so?' he asked. 'And may I ask why I can't win?'

The smile vanished suddenly from Marfach's face and his eyes glowed red.
'Because, Ranger...' he said in a voice little more than a whisper;
' living man can kill me!'