The Dragon and the Fox

by Varda

Chapter 9: The Red Hand

In practice with the bow Dian never missed. But this was different. Her adversary loomed up black against the light from the burning hillside and she could not see clearly if it was a man or an orc, but it was taller than both. She drew her bow quickly and seeing the movement the creature sprang out of the light and Dian saw in that moment long red hair twisted into braids and thought she saw also eyes gleaming red and a great long blade catching the light of the flames. Not an orc, far taller than an orc....

Unnerved, Dian let her arrow fly. The bow sang and the creature leaped aside but the tip caught it on the shoulder and tore into the ancient chain mail. With a hiss of anger it sprang towards her, covering the six or eight strides between them in a heartbeat. She had no time to notch another arrow, and throwing her bow down she snatched up Aonta's long sword from where she had laid it on the bracken and with both hands swung it in a great arc before her just as the red-eyed creature shot out a long arm to seize her. The sharp tip flew past its face with only inches to spare, but before she could recover her weapon her enemy brought his own sword down on hers and sparks flew as the keen edges grated on each other and the Scorpion was pushed down into the brush, the point digging into the soft ground.

His grip on the sword was strong as iron, forcing her hand down and down. They were very close now, she could feel his breath on her face. He pulled back and threw his shoulder against hers to knock her down but she saw the move and let go the sword and stepped back and he lost his balance and as he stumbled she snatched the dagger from her belt and thrust it into his side.

The ancient chain mail turned the tip of the dagger but the blow drove the breath out of her attacker and he jumped away from her, raising his sword again. In the few moments it took him to recover Dian scrabbled in the bracken and regained her sword as well.

They stood face to face, panting with the effort of the fight, staring at each other. On the hill the flames were rapidly dying down, but in their fading light Dian saw what seemed to be a tall, red-haired man with a pale gaunt face and grey eyes. The hand grasping the sword was tattooed with a red dragon, but to her astonishment his face, now she could see it, wore a look of entreaty. He bent down, laid his sword on the ground, and held up his hands palm outward and said,

"Hold, Ranger. I am not an enemy!"

"Then what are you?" shouted Dian, gripping her sword tighter.

Marfach paused, then a cold smile spread over his face. "An Elf."

Dian stared at him. She had never seen an Elf, but this did not look like what the songs and tales told of the Fair Folk... .

"That is not true!" she said sharply and pointed at his hand. "That is a mark of the Dark Lord's servants. No Elf would carry such a sign. And anyway, the Elves are fair and noble...."

Marfach began to laugh. "I am sorry I am not fair enough for you, Lady. But it is true, for all that. I am an Elf." He pointed to the sword lying on the ground between them. "That is an Elven blade. Take a close look at it."

Dian looked and indeed the sword, shining now in the faint starlight, had on its hilts and on the broad of its blade symbols and characters that, although she could not read them, Dian knew to be Elvish. For she had seen a sword which was its twin, in Críonna's hand in the Council Chamber during the Army council, and that was a blade of Lórien. She gazed at Marfach, torn now by indecision.

"Why did you attack me?" she demanded.

Marfach still held his hands up palm outwards. He said. "I feared you would slay me, I was trying to disarm you." He smiled wryly. "It seems that a Ranger is not so easily disarmed."

When Dian did not answer, Marfach slowly lowered his hands and asked quietly, "Will you not trust me, Lady?" He gestured to the glowing fires on the hillside. "It was I who set those fires, to draw the orcs away from you." He pointed to the orc lying dead with an arrow bristling from its neck. "I slew that orc, and others on the trail, to divert them from you."

He fell silent. Dian stared at him, hesitating. He was fierce in aspect, but the grey eyes were kind, even mischievous. A trickle of blood worked its way down the links of the chain mail from the wound in his shoulder. Dian lowered her sword and said,

"Then I owe you my life, but I still don't know who you are. No-one now journeys in this land but the servants of the Dark Tower or the White. Which are you, and where do you come from?"

"I serve neither the Dark Tower not the White," replied Marfach. "Yet I am a friend to Minas Tirith. I have sworn an oath to serve the King."

"The King?" asked Dian, baffled. "What king? Théoden?"

Marfach shook his head. "Not the king of Rohan, but of Gondor...."

They were interrupted by a moan from Altán. Dian cursed herself and turning hurried over to him, followed by Marfach. During the fighting Altán, thinking he would soon be slain, dragged himself across to a tree and lay with his back against it and with a great effort drew his sword. Now he lay slumped with the blade still in his hand. Dian pulled him over and saw that a great stain had spread across his tunic around the splintered arrow shaft.

Marfach said urgently in her ear, "We do not have much time. The orcs will return."

"I am not leaving him!" Dian whispered fiercely.

Marfach smiled. "I do not ask you to," he said. "Rangers never leave their wounded...let me see his wound...."

When Marfach probed the wound Altán, wavering in and out of dream, was dragged back to wakefulness by the pain. He looked up and seeing Marfach he started and tried to push him away, thinking the enemy had taken him.

Marfach laid a hand gently on his shoulder and said, "Ciúnas." The Ranger seemed to relax and Dian remembered that Elves were accounted great healers.

Marfach said to her in a whisper, "Give me your dagger, mine is fouled with orc blood."

Hesitating for a moment Dian handed over her long Ranger's knife. There was very little light left now from the fires, but Marfach seemed hardly to need it, having the Elves' night-vision. He cut away the cloth from the wound and then nicked the skin around the arrow head, and gripping the shattered stump with a sudden movement he pulled the arrow out. He had done this many times before, when his Dunlendings had been worsted by the Rohirrim. Now he gently pressed down on the wound with a fold of Altán's cloak. The Ranger had cried out then slipped back into unconsciousness. He needed to rest and keep still, but Marfach knew that the orcs would recover from their fright soon, and then they would return....

He looked up at Dian. "We have to go," he said to her. "The enemy will soon be back, and this time they will not be fooled by fire."

Dian looked up at him in the starlight, her face anxious. "But what about Altán?"

Marfach knelt down and lifted the lightly built Ranger up as gently as he could and put him across his shoulder. "We will take him too...."

* * *

The dawn mist had turned to rain, falling with a faint thunder through the trees along the river. The willows bent lower to the dark water and the hillside was lost to view in a grey curtain of rain. Faramir watched as his tracker, Fiontar, bent over a trail of crushed grass and broken reeds at the water's edge. Moving lightly so as to leave undisturbed the signs on the ground, this small dark-haired Ranger was named "Chance" for his ability to take risks and still escape. Like his captain, he seemed to live a charmed life....

Orcs often travelled along the Andúin in the shallows to avoid ambush, but these had been bold enough to venture inland. Faramir looked up and down the river uneasily. His sense of danger had never deserted him, and now he felt something amiss with these raiders from Mordor.

At last Fiontar raised his head and said, "I count about thirty, and the tracks are only an hour, perhaps two hours old. They passed here at a run, and have headed south."

Faramir nodded. It could be a trap, to lure them into the treeless marshy land beside the river. But if the Rangers were to follow them, they must do so quickly. Fiontar broke into his thoughts.

"There are other tracks too, mostly trampled over. The orcs were pursuing something."

Faramir raised an eyebrow, "What?"

"Well," Fiontar said doubtfully. "It looks like Ranger's tracks, and another, some tall man, or someone carrying a heavy burden, the marks are sunk into the ground. The orcs rushed over them, but in places I can still read them," Fiontar indicated, and Faramir bent to look where the tracker pointed. Behind him his Rangers stood hooded and unmoving amidst the trees, watching the forest, almost indistinguishable from it, holding bows as tall as themselves. Fiontar pressed his hand on the wet ground and showed his palm to Faramir. It was smeared with red.

"Blood?" asked Faramir.

Fiontar nodded. "It is not orc blood, it must be the orcs' quarry. If we want to find them alive we must hurry...."