The Dragon and the Fox

by Varda

Chapter 90: A Gift from the Dead

Seolta woke with a start and scrambled to his feet. He had slept on the hard ground, under a spring frost, and despite his Elven cloak he was chilled to the bone and every joint and muscle in his body ached.

But the Ranger did not think of his stiff limbs; looking all around him, he realised that while he had been sleeping, his companion, the Elf Dearfa, had deserted him.

Elves do not need sleep, but men do. When Seolta indicated to Dearfa that he had to get some rest the Elf had merely nodded and sat down wrapped in his silver-grey cloak, his pale, stern face impassive. Seolta stretched out on the rocky, parched bed of a dried up stream and fell at once into a deep sleep.

As soon as he was sure the Ranger was asleep, Dearfa got up and set off at a swift run, tracking Marfach and Liofa by the leprous glow of a sickle-shaped moon.

It was not entirely in disloyalty to the Ranger that Dearfa the Elf abandoned him. He knew that Seolta no longer believed they should pursue Marfach and kill him, and certainly the Ranger would never kill Liofa. Dearfa however was resolved to kill both of them, and feared he might have to fight Seolta to do it if they stayed together. So when the man announced he needed an hour's sleep, Dearfa seized his chance to leave him behind.

Seolta had slept at the bottom of a little ravine. When he climbed up to the top, he looked out in all directions, and the land was empty. Not even a black crow of Mordor flapped across the dead earth, but in the distance the row of mountains that marked the border of Mordor rose into the smoky mist like jagged and broken teeth.

'What a fool I was!' thought Seolta. 'I would wager he left me when I had just fallen asleep, and by that sun I have slept almost six hours! I will never catch up with him now...'

For all his dismay at being left alone, Seolta felt hunger gnaw at him.Taking his leather pouch he drew out a hard piece of dried beef and tore a bite from it and chewed the tough meat thoughtfully. Above him the sky was clearing before a fresh breeze from the West and the sun, pale as old gold, gleamed through the shreds of grey clouds.

The faint heat warmed Seolta's chilled limbs. Despite everything, his spirits lifted. Perhaps, he thought, what had happened was not such a disaster. He had been dreading the moment when they caught Marfach and Liofa. He did not want to kill Liofa, and searching his heart, he found he no longer really wanted to kill Marfach. He sensed now that this creature, whatever else he was, was no simple enemy or servant of Sauron.

Seolta sighed; now as often in his life, his rashness led im into a situation that he later came to regret. He threw away the inedible hank of meat and washed down his meagre breakfast with a few mouthfuls from his waterskin. He smiled grimly to himself; somehow, he suspected that even that stern Elf Dearfa might find the slaying of Marfach beyond his powers.....

Seolta now admitted to himself that Dearfa had far too much of a head start to be caught.
There was nothing for the Ranger to do but return to the service of the King, and make what apologies he could for deserting the army of The West on the eve of battle. He belonged with the Black Company, and nowhere else. And yet he was grieved that the bond of man and Elf that existed in their company had been severed in such a way. Marfach it seemed always set friend against friend, and man against Elf.

Seolta got stiffly to his feet, but almost at once he threw himself down again and lay flat on the rocky ground, every sense alert....

Over the rush of the wind through the dead trees, Seolta had heard a sound all too familiar to him from years of fighting the servants of Sauron; a sniffling and snuffling along the ground, accompanied by a grunting and snorting. An orc on the hunt.

Moving slowly, Seolta inched to the top of the ravine and peered out through the long, withered grass. To the North-East lay a track, once a road when roads were needed in this land. Spread along it and fanning out through the surrounding countryside, was a large force from Mordor. Seolta peered intently and counted a great number of Uruk-hai and among them, some mounted and others afoot, a force of Easterlings with their red gilded armour and their long glaives flashing in the weak sunlight. Under orders from Orc commanders, the human and non-human army were infiltrating the land, settling into every defile and always, inexorably, moving Southwards.

The army of the West had set forth just after he and Dearfa left Minas Tirith. They must even now be just behind Seolta on the road north to the Black Gates, and they were heading right into a trap.

'I have to warn them!' thought Seolta.

Crawling on his stomach, his grey Elven cloak making him indistinguishable from the rocky stream bed below him, Seolta made his slow and painful way down the valley. By the position of the sun he knew he was heading South-West, and if he was not seen, he could join up with the army of Gondor before they came within range of this hidden enemy and their ambush.

Despite the great danger he was in, Seolta was almost happy; now he had a task he could fulfill for the cause of the West, and prove his loyalty to the king. And if he achieved it he could return to the Black Company with honour.

But he put aside hope and concentrated on the present. He could hear the murmur of voices from beyond the escarpment above; orcs grunting in their bestial language, and men speaking to each other in theirs. Seolta moved more quickly, but soon he could hear noises ahead of him as well as behind, and realised that his enemies had overtaken him; even with the Elvish cloak, it was only a matter of time before they saw him. He threw caution aside and began to run.

For a few heartbeats, nothing happened, and all Seolta could hear was the crunching and slipping of his own feet on the stones. But then there came a cry of warning from a human voice. In a moment of almost abstract thought, Seolta wondered how men could bring themselves to fight with orcs, and then the first of a hail of arrows hit the ground in front of him, the long barbed iron point striking sparks off the stone, the shaft shattering into splinters on the hard rock.

A great chorus of yells, human and orc, rose then and arrows and crossbow bolts rained down into the ravine. Whether the Elven cloak deceived their aim or whether Seolta was just running too quickly, all the shafts flew wide. At home in the North it was said that what Seolta could not outfight he could outrun, and now his speed was tested hard, as the end of the ravine drew closer with agonising slowness and the cries of pursuit grew fiercer behind him.

The Ranger had reached the bottom of the slope and was clawing up its loose stony face when an arrow at last found him. Some of the others had hit his Elvish cloak and it had entangled the points and saved him. But now the cloak blew aside and exposed his left shoulder and a long black shaft tipped with barbed steel struck him just below the top of his shoulder blade, slicing his leather tunic like silk and embedding itself in his flesh. The force of the arrow pitched Seolta forward onto his face, and other missiles pattered about him on the ground.

'Get up!' he heard a voice say, and it was his own. The world was spinning and the sun had turned to darkness, but he put his hands under him and pushed himself to his feet and tottered on till he had reached the top of the valley. Then he staggered into a grove of dead alders, and at once the arrows stopped. Dragging his feet and holding his shoulder to staunch the blood he ran on towards the South...

The night after the unwilling warriors were dismissed by Aragorn and left the army, the host made camp in a sombre and silent mood. Fires were lit, but the men who sat around them spoke little and laughed but rarely. They ate their meagre supper staring into the flames, seeing such visions as they would not want to share with their comrades.

Legolas and Gimli made camp together, as was their custom. Gimli ate heartily of what rations were available, then fell to energetically honing his axe with a whetstone. He glared at the neighbouring campfires and said to Legolas;
'You would think it was a funeral, not a campaign. They could at least wait till we are dead to mourn!'
Legolas gave a low chuckle but motioned to Gimli to keep his voice down.
'It has long been evident to me that Dwarves fear little if they fear anything at all, my good friend.’ He said. ‘But others may not be so hardy...'

Gimli grunted and continued to hone his axe. After a moment he nodded in the direction of the large fire that Aragorn shared with Gandalf and the other leaders of the army.
'Our former comrade is no longer free to share our fireside with us....'

Legolas looked round at Aragorn and sighed.
'Since Prince Imrahil declared that he must go forth at the head of the army as King Elessar, I think he feels he must behave more as a king than a common captain of Rangers...'
Gimli snorted again.
'Will he forget how he made one of the Three Hunters? He was not loath then to share our fireside...'
'I think he would much prefer to be with us...' Legolas corrected his companion gently.. 'Kingship, my dear Gimli, is a lonely place to be....'

Gimli nodded and looked at the Elf from under his bushy eyebrows.
'You are the son of a king yourself, my friend Legolas, are you not?'

Legolas's fair face grew solemn in the firelight. He never spoke of his father, Thranduil King of the woodland realm of Mirkwood. The Elf drew a long sigh and turning to Gimli he said;
'My father thinks as much of gold and jewels as of his people. Once, too, he led them in war, and his pride and rashness resulted in many of our folk being slain.'
Legolas shook his head. '..I owe a son’s duty to my father, but no love for him, Gimli....'

The Dwarf nodded and put down his axe.
'A love of gold and jewels, that I can understand, as we Dwarves too love such things. But to lead your people to destruction in battle, no dwarf would ever forgive a king such folly. We pride ourselves on our tactics...'

Legolas laughed suddenly, the sound like the tinkle of bright water.
'Tactics!' he said merrily. 'That is a bold claim, coming from one who is behind me in the tally race...'
'I am not behind you!' exclaimed Gimli, leaping to his feet and brandishing his axe.
'In fact, I am ahead of you on points!'
'Only if you count the Mumak as one....' objected Legolas
'I do count it as one!' retorted Gimli. Legolas laughed again and said;
'That is not fair! There were at least twelve on that archery platform on the beast's back...'
'Bad luck to them!' snorted Gimli. 'It still only counts as one....'

Legolas was by now almost helpless with laughter. He waved at Gimli to resume his seat.
'Sit down, my old friend!' he said. 'I will allow it, this time. But from now on I will find it much harder to keep in the race, as my arrows are almost all spent, even those I was given by Galadriel herself...'

And Legolas lifted his quiver, the one with the peacock worked in silver on the leather. Inside it there were no more than half a dozen arrows.

The name of Galadriel momentarily distracted Gimli, and he stared into the fire for some time without seeming to notice Legolas at all. But then he shook himself and gazed at the half-empty quiver.
'Can you no get some from the men of Gondor?' he asked. Legolas shook his head.
'They are too short for the great bow of the Galadhrim' he said. 'They fall inside it when I draw it fully'
Gimli made a sympathetic face, but in truth Dwarves are not great archers, preferring to fight with axes. A gleam lit up his eye.
'It does mean I will probably win then...?' he said happily.
'Yes, if we don't both die first...' said Legolas with an exasperated frown.

The two friends lapsed in to silence, gazing into their fire. But around them were men with keen hearing, and after a while a few figures stole away into the darkness. Soon two figures emerged from the night into the circle of light cast by Gimli and Legolas's campfire. The Elf quickly got to his feet.

'No, do not rise, please!' said the tallest of the two, and Legolas saw by the firelight on his gilded mail that he too was an Elf, of the Galadhrim. He bowed to Legolas.
'We are sorry to disturb your rest....' he indicated his friend. '..this is Callanach, leader of the Black Company of Rangers of Arnor, and I am Rosc, the leader of the Elves of Lothlorien who have sworn to fight alongside them. My duty to you, Legolas Greenleaf, Prince and son of King Thranduil of Mirkwood, and to you Gimli son of Gloin...'

And the Elf swept Legolas and Gimli a low bow, and the smaller figure of the young Ranger captain followed suit. Then they straightened up and there was an awkward silence. Gimli broke it.
'Friends, do not stand on ceremony, sit by our fire and share what food we have....'
Callanach now spoke for the first time.
'My Lord Gimli, we thank you but we have already supped. We will sit with you for a while, though, as we have long desired to speak with you, and....'
Cal stopped abruptly, and Gimli with a gleam in his eye finished off his sentence;
'...and, you were going to say, there might not be another opportunity...'
Cal bent his head.
'Yes...' he muttered. 'I was going to say something like that.....'

Gimli poured a horn mug of beer and pushed it into the boy's hand.
'Drink that and don't think any more of war tonight. Can I tempt you, Lord Elf..?'

Rosc held up a hand in polite refusal and Gimli and Callanach took deep draughts of their cups while the Elves looked on. Then Gimli put down his mug and smacked his lips.
'Ah! that is good. The brewers of Minas Tirith are almost as good as the ones of Eriador. Almost....'
'My lords...' broke in Callanach. 'We really do not want to intrude...'
'You're not' said Gimli flatly, thinking of the glum fireside they would have been keeping anyway. But Callanach went on;
'We are honoured to meet you, but that is not why we came; we heard that you, Legolas, lack arrows. We brought you some....'

And from under his cloak Callanach took a large linen bag closed at the mouth with a drawstring. He loosed the string and pulled open the top, and Legolas glancing in could see a great sheaf of arrows of Lothlorien. He would know them anywhere, with their white fletches and grey shafts.

Legolas rose quickly to his feet and stepping across to where Callanach sat he took up the bag and ran his hand over the silky swans-feather fletches. The Elf Rosc smiled.
'We know you were given a bow of Lorien, and we know also that only arrows of Lorien can be used with it..We have great store of them, and so we thought to give you some....'

Legolas was lost for some moments in admiration of the arrows. Then he suddenly looked up and his expression changed.
'How came you to have so many?' he asked with foreboding in his voice.

Rosc sighed and looked down.
'We fought at Helm's Deep, and most of our company were slain, along with our captain, Haldir. Those who remained decided to continue in the service of the King. Our fallen were buried with those of Rohan, the first time in many ages that the battle dead of men and Elves have been laid to sleep under the same mound. Their bows we also interred, but the arrows we kept, for our own use. That is how we come to have so many....'

'Dead men's arrows; a gift from the departed ....' said Gimli, stroking his beard thoughtfully, Legolas drew the string tight on the arrow bag and looked up at Rosc.
'I will use them well, my lord Elf. I thank you for your offer, it is a gift of more than just arrows....'

At a campfire some distance away, Aragorn sat also aware that he was no longer keeping company with his friends. He missed Legolas and Gimli, but the captains of the West sat around him talking in desultory manner, and he felt he should listen and respond. Eventually however they all took their leave and returned to their men, and only Gandalf remained. But the Wizard did not speak to him, merely sat puffing on his pipe, gazing into the dying fire.

Feeling restless, Aragorn got to his feet and walked around the perimeter of the camp, speaking to the guards. The men were alert and watchful, and Aragorn returned to his fire reassured about the army’s safety that night at least. Gandalf had wrapped himself in his cloak and lain down to sleep, so Aragorn, not hoping to get much rest himself, did the same.

Whether he was more tired than he realised, or whether some evil dream was waiting to draw him into its dark world, he fell asleep almost as soon as he closed his eyes.

At once he found himself back in Minas Tirith. But it was not the city he had left a few days before; standing on the upper level, before the White Tower, he looked out over a city wreathed in flames. It was not the partial sack of the city that had taken place during the battle of the Pelennor, but a complete invasion by the enemy. From his high vantage point, Aragorn could see that every one of the seven levels of the city but the uppermost was burning. Screams rose to where he stood, and leaning over the low smoke-stained wall Aragorn watched in horror as orcs and other nameless creatures pursued the inhabitants of the city through its burning streets.

As he looked, he could pick out a woman in a blue tunic with a child in her arms. Keeping her breath for running she neither screamed not cried out, but fled as swiftly as she could along a burning alleyway. But behind her, also silent but in the manner of wolves pursuing a hind, ran a great pack of Uruk-hai.

Aragorn willed the woman to greater speed, hoping against hope that she could escape her pursuers, although where she could escape to in that burning city he could not guess. But his hope was in vain. The first of the fell pursuers eventually reached the woman, and she at last gave a scream that rang in Aragorn's ears. He clapped a hand to the hilt of his sword, only to find his scabbard was empty. But when he moved his head to look down he became aware of a figure at the corner of his eye. He turned; standing beside him at the wall, also looking out at the scene, was Boromir of Gondor.

Appalled, Aragorn forgot all about the fleeing woman and stepped back. Boromir continued to gaze down at the burning city and he said with a grim little laugh;
'What is the matter, Aragorn? Can't you bear the sight of what you have done?'
'What do you mean?' asked Aragorn. 'What have I done?'

Boromir extended his arm.
'This is what I mean!' he cried. 'You took this city from my father, Denethor the Steward. You, Aragorn, descendent of Isildur. You promised me you would save our people and our city and now look what you have done with them! You have lost, and led them to death and ruin!'

In spite of himself, Aragorn looked down at the ravaged streets, engulfed in fire and smoke, and the carnage raging there. He had no answer. He looked again at Boromir.

Then he saw that the arm Boromir extended towards the burning city seemed just a stick in a sleeve, and the hand that pointed was nothing but bones covered in dried skin.

In horror, Aragorn looked at Boromir's face, and the son of the Steward as if reading his thoughts turned it to him, and Aragorn saw it was just skin stretched over a skull, with two red lights burning deep in the empty eye sockets.

Aragorn wanted to retreat but his legs would not obey him. His gaze fell on Boromir's tunic where it covered his chest and stomach; the rich fabric twitched and heaved, as if a mass of worms feasted on the body inside. Despite the rushing in his ears Aragorn heard the dry, scornful laughing of the dead Boromir;
'This is what Sauron will bring you to as well, descendent of Isildur...Death!'

Aragorn opened his mouth to scream, but no sound would come. Suddenly he felt himself shaken roughly;
'Aragorn! Aragorn! Wake up....!'

He scrambled to his feet, bathed in a deathly cold sweat. He looked about; beside him, his hand on Aragorn's arm as if to restrain him, stood Gandalf. In a circle around them stood the sentries, holding torches that threw a yellow light on their pale, frightened faces.

Aragorn realised he had been dreaming. He bowed his head.
'It is nothing....I did not summon you here.....'
'You had a bad dream, I know...' broke in Gandalf brusquely. 'we did not wake you for that. A messenger has come from the North, a Ranger. He says there is an ambush waiting for us on the road ahead...'.

Aragorn was shaking; the memory of the horror in the dream sat on him like an evil spirit. Passing an arm across his brow to wipe away the cold sweat he nodded.
'Very well, bring this messenger to me....'

The men turned away then, and Aragorn had a moment to himself to regain his thoughts and let his pounding heart resume its normal rhythm. Gandalf stepped up to him.
'Is all well with you, Aragorn?' he asked, then narrowed his eyes. 'What did you see in this dream?'
'Nothing...' replied Aragorn in a shaking voice. 'Nothing, Mithrandir...'

Just then the sentries returned with Seolta. Aragorn raised his head and looked into his face. He remembered this man; he had given the Black Company leave to join the army, and this Ranger was their leader. How then came he to be wandering alone in the country of Ithilien? Aragorn frowned.
'Why were you out in the land where only our enemies are at large?'

Seolta bowed stiffly. He straightened up and Aragorn saw his face was yellow-grey in hue, as one with a deadly fever.
'I ask your pardon, my lord Aragorn...'
'King Elessar to you...' murmured one of the guards. Seolta stopped and bowed again.
'Again I beg your pardon, my lord King. I was abroad on an errand....'
'Errand?' interrupted Gandalf. 'What errand could you have in this deserted land?'

Seolta hesitated and Aragorn saw the look of shame and uncertainty in his face. Before the Ranger could speak, Aragorn said;
'It matters not. I am sure it was an errand of honour, and we need not know of it here. Just tell us what you saw.....'

Seolta's face lit up with relief.
'Thank you, my lord King. What I saw was...a great force of orcs and men of Rhun settling into position to ambush you, just in that place where Faramir of Gondor ambushed the men of Harad days ago....'

There was a sharp intake of breath by the guards. More men were gathering round. Already dawn was streaking the sky. Aragorn knew he must take control of the situation. He inclined his head.
'My thanks for your warning. I will send out scouts to confirm the enemy's position. In the meantime.....are you hurt?'

Aragorn had noticed that Seolta was swaying unsteadily and sweat gleamed on his face.
The Ranger replied;
'An orc arrow struck me as I was trying to escape ...'

Aragorn nodded; now he understood the man's greenish pale face. He knew that orc arrows were often anointed with venom. He met Seolta's gaze and saw that the Ranger knew he was poisoned. Awake or asleep, Aragorn could not escape death.

He said to one of the sentries;
'Take this man away and dress his wounds. Bring him back to his company, they will care for him...'

And not meeting Seolta's eyes again Aragorn turned to the captains who had hurried up;
'Go and rouse your companies. The army will strike camp right away; we must be ready to encircle this ambush, and attack the attackers....'

As they hurried off Aragorn's thoughts returned to his dream. A trickle of ice cold sweat ran down his face. Was this indeed what lay in store for him, death in battle, and the burning of Minas Tirith and the slaughter of its people? Or was it just a dream sent by Sauron?

Gandalf was watching him closely. Aragorn shook off his thoughts said to him in a grim voice;
'Either this day or the next, Mithrandir, we will learn wo will live and who will die.....`