The Dragon and the Fox

by Varda

Chapter 92: Death is the Prize

Banners of green and purple and gold streamed bright against the deep blue of the evening sky, and awnings of silver material as fine as a mist below the moon stretched from one white marble tower to the next, screening the courtyard from the last rays of the setting sun.

In the shade of the awnings a group of Elves in garments of silver and blue walked towards the white marble steps of the palace that was the heart and centre of the Elven city and kingdom of Doriath. The air was full of sweet, sad music and the silver ripple of water running in the fountains that adorned the courtyard.

The Elves stopped when they saw a lady clad in blue and green at the top of the marble steps. On her bright hair was a circlet of gold set with a single emerald and round her waist was a belt made of mithril and steel and set with diamonds. The lady was Melian, and the belt was the Girdle of Melian, the tangible symbol of the strength and beauty that held Doriath safe and secure....

Beside Melian stood an Elf clad in a plain grey cloak and wearing a fillet of unwrought silver on his dark hair. When Melian saw the company of Elves she placed her hand in that of her consort Elwe and descended the steps to greet them.

The Elves bowed when they saw Melian approach, but she held out her hand to their leader and said with a smile;
‘Croga the brave, you have journeyed far and faced many perils in the defence of our realm. Receive now our thanks, you and your company who are named for me...’

Croga bowed and as he straightened up Elwe, also called Thingol, the grey-cloaked Elf at Melian’s side, spoke to him;
‘The reward for your loyalty and courage is our thanks, and honour that we pray will never be stained. Enter our halls now where we have prepared a feast for you and your Company...’

And the Lady Melian and Lord Thingol turned and led Croga and his Elves up the steps into a great, wide hall with walls of crystal and amethyst, lit with the evening sun more brightly than with any lamp.....

‘Get up, you Elf scum!’ shouted Uafas, aiming a kick at Marfach as he lay on the stony ground. Around them a great crowd of orcs jostled each other like savage hounds pulled off their prey. Marfach, bruised and bloody from their attacks, raised himself onto his hands and knees, cupped a hand over his mouth and spat out a tooth, and looked up at Uafas.

The Uruk grinned down at him. ‘So you’re a servant of Mordor, eh? A loyal soldier of The Eye? You’re a filthy Elf spying for that ratland of Gondor. I knew it all along...’

Uafas was about to aim another kick at Marfach, but having recovered consciousness Marfach scrambled to stand up and avoid the mailed feet of his enemy. His head ached fiercely from being buffeted by blows and there was a sharp pain in his side. But out of the corner of his eye he saw that the orcs had stamped out the burning torch and cut Dearfa free, and now the Elf was standing swaying slightly and looking about with a face at once angry and baffled.

Uafas, however, was elated; with his own cunning he had tricked this strange red-eyed creature into confessing the truth. He dared not think what would have happened to him if he had believed Marfach and brought him to Sauron; the very thought made the sweat break out on his greenish leathery face. He looked at Marfach and bellowed;

‘Nearly convinced me, didn’t you? A big message for the Eye, have you? Nearly got me flayed alive, that was what you did...’

Thinking on what could have happened to him had he fallen for Marfach’s story turned Uafas’s mood even nastier. He stamped up to Marfach and glared into his face, scratched and bruised from the beating the orcs had given him.

’Well I didn’t fall for your lies. Now I have two Elves to burn! Two for the price of one...’

‘He’s not an Elf, you stupid filth!’

The voice, clear even over the din created by the mob of orcs, was calm and slightly musical, although stern and tinged with contempt. It was Dearfa’s voice. Standing as straight as he could he turned his cut and bruised face to look Marfach in the eye and said to Uafas;

‘That is no Elf, you great baboon. Even a stupid orc like you should be able to see that. You and what your kind think matter nothing to me, but the honour of Elves will outlast both you and these evil times, and I will not hear the name of the First Born sullied by calling this beast an Elf..’

A deathly silence fell at these words. The crowd of orcs turned to regard Dearfa with astonishment, and Uafas looked at him with his mouth open, caught between outrage at being called a baboon and perplexity at having his assessment of the identity of Marfach once more thrown open to debate.

As if released from a spell, however, the orcs suddenly came to life and rushed on Dearfa with raised scimitars, eager to wash away the insult with Elven blood. But Uafas bawled at them over the noise.

‘Stop, you maggots! Don’t kill him. Bring him over here...’

Two orcs seized Dearfa’s arms and dragged him across to stand facing Marfach, with Uafas beside them. Dearfa drew himself up to his full height and shook his long black hair back from his pale face. His bright, keen grey eyes met Marfach’s red eyes. The two looked at each other in silence, and despite their torn and dirty clothes there was no mistaking that both had the same tall, slender and graceful frame of the Elves.

Aware of Uafas staring at them Marfach tried desperately to communicate with Dearfa but the Elf blocked him, his fair, stern face regarding Marfach with disgust.

‘If he isn’t an Elf....’ Uafas demanded of Dearfa ‘..then why did he save you from burning?’

For the first time uncertainty crept into Dearfa’s face. His direct, bright gaze faltered and he even glanced at Uafas. Then he looked back at Marfach.

‘Let me into your thoughts..’ asked Marfach silently.
‘No!’ replied Dearfa. He turned to Uafas and said in the Common Tongue;
‘I don’t know why he saved me. Ask him yourself. All I know is he is not of my kind; he is not an Elf. Neither is he any servant of Gondor. He is an outcast and a criminal in that land. They gave him his name, Marfach, Man-killer....’

An angry murmur had arisen from the mob of orcs; they feared some sorcery was being wrought by these two Elves and they wanted to get on with it and kill them.

‘You see...’ shouted Dearfa over the noise. ‘..he has only one hand. The other one which he lost was marked with a special sign; the Red Dragon. The lord of Mordor keeps the sign of the Dragon for those of his servants who have won his special favour....’

Dearfa looked at Uafas and said;

‘This, you fool of an Orc, is the Red Dragon....’

A hush of doubt had fallen on the crowd of orcs. Uafas stared at Dearfa, his dark mind in turmoil. The Elf had given Marfach the very name the creature himself had told Uafas, yet Dearfa could not have overheard their conversation. And now he had named him the Red Dragon, and even Uafas had heard of The Dragon. He studied Dearfa carefully; the Elf’s hatred was not feigned....or was it?

Uafas said to Dearfa;
‘Elf, you are telling me that this is not one of your people but some great Lieutenant of Sauron?’
‘Yes!’ snapped Dearfa.
‘..and he is not in the service of the King of Gondor?’
‘That is impossible!’ said Dearfa angrily.
‘...but on the contrary..’ went on Uafas ‘..he is your opponent in war and a hated enemy of all Elves?’

‘Yes!’ said Dearfa, although the hostile gaze that he fixed on Marfach faltered as Dearfa began to feel uneasy about where Uafas’s questioning was leading him.

‘Listen to me!’ pleaded Marfach’s thoughts. ‘No!’ insisted Dearfa.

‘..and so, if I were to give you a weapon now, say...’ drawled Uafas ‘ would instantly kill this Marfach, even though he just saved you from the fire?’
There was a silence. At last Dearfa said in a flat voice;

Marfach stopped trying to convey his thoughts to Dearfa, closed his eyes and hung his head. Uafas grinned and turned to his orcs.

‘Lads, form a circle. One of you lend our Elf friend here a nice sharp dagger. It appears that Elves can hate Elves just as much as we hated those stupid wizard-born scum from Isengard....thank you!’

The last words were spoken with mock courtesy to a great evil-featured orc that shambled forward and handed a long black dagger to Uafas. The orc leader then threw it on the ground in front of Dearfa and the rest of his command crowded round to form a rough circle with the two Elves in the centre. Just in case Dearfa tried to turn his newly acquired weapon on his captors, they picked up their round black iron-studded bucklers and held them in front of them, forming an arena lined with mailed shields, their owners’ dark and savage faces showing long yellow tusks above them as they beamed in delight at the prospect of seeing an Elf slaying another Elf.

Uafas stepped out of the circle; he did not intend to be killed by an Elf any more than he wanted to be fooled by one.

Dearfa picked up the dagger and stood in the cleared space facing Marfach. Underfoot was the sandy bed of the dried up stream with large, rounded river stones scattered all about. Marfach bent down and picked one up. A murmur of grudging admiration and anticipation ran through the orcs.

Dearfa raised his eyebrows and looked at Marfach.
‘Let me in, Dearfa!’ thought Marfach. ‘I can explain everything to you!’
‘Drop the stone first’ replied Dearfa. Marfach smiled. ‘I have an order from Elessar himself to fulfil a mission’ he replied. ‘I am not going to let myself be skewered by an Elf made blind by hate. You won’t cause me to fail in my quest...’

At these words, conveyed by thought but with such vigour that they echoed round Dearfa’s head, the Elf of Lorien gripped the handle of the black dagger and attacked Marfach.

Even with his wounded leg Marfach possessed preternatural speed and strength. He retreated quickly before Dearfa and when the Elf lunged at him with the knife, he nimbly ducked out of the way. The blade struck sparks from his gilded armour, but Marfach trotted away unharmed.

The circle of orcs swayed and heaved as the creatures retreated before the combatants, and as those at the back pressed forward for a better view...

‘I will elude you every time you attack...’ said Marfach in thought. ‘..till at last they get tired of the game and kill us both. Or I will dash your brains out with this rock. You make the choice, Elf of Lorien. The day will never dawn that you can defeat me in combat...’

Dearfa was trailing around the improvised arena after Marfach, his face pale and grim. No matter how quickly he moved Marfach seemed always just outside his grasp. Dearfa himself was wounded with a deep sword cut below his ribs. Every movement was an effort and there was a mist before his eyes. He was no longer strong enough to keep Marfach’s thoughts out of his mind.

‘Ask yourself, Dearfa..’ said Marfach. ‘Why did I save you from the fire?’
Dearfa could not answer this. It was clear that Marfach had put his own life in danger by preventing the orcs from burning him. Dearfa trudged round the ring after Marfach, trying in vain to think of any reason why the creature had saved him, but he could not.
‘Very well...’ said Dearfa in thought, at last coming to an exhausted halt. ‘Tell me what is this order that you say King Elessar gave you...’

Marfach drew a deep breath; above all he wanted to persuade Dearfa that he was not a servant of Sauron. As quickly as he could, he told the Elf of his mission to persuade Sauron that Aragorn had the Ring.

Dearfa received Marfach’s thoughts in silence. It was a great surprise and shock to him that Marfach knew of the Ring, and Frodo the Ringbearer. All Elves knew, of course, especially those of the Black Company, who had been told by Liofa, who in turn had learned of it from Gollum. That Marfach knew of it but had not gone East long ago to tell Sauron about Frodo's quest perplexed Dearfa; the only explanation was that Marfach was, indeed, no longer in the service of Mordor and was now working for the downfall of Sauron.

Dearfa looked down at the knife in his hand, and bent his head. Marfach was asking him for a reply, but the Elf of Lorien would not give one. His strength failing, Dearfa realised that he had been wrong about Marfach. Now at last he understood why Liofa and Callanach had such a bond with the creature. He looked up and said to Marfach;

‘When you saved me from the fire, you put in peril the mission Elessar entrusted you with. Why did you not let me burn?’

Marfach looked at Dearfa and for the first time since they had encountered each other he smiled, and there was no bitterness in the smile.

‘I could not let you die, Dearfa..' he replied. ' would have been wrong.’

‘Wrong?’ repeated Dearfa in puzzlement. Then he shook his head. ‘In truth you are not what I thought you were. You have honour and loyalty, even to those who have treated you as a foe. Well did the Elves name you Croga...’

Marfach was still smiling at Dearfa. But when he saw the expression on the Elf’s face his smile faded. Dearfa nodded.
‘I will not endanger your mission...’ he said, and raised the black orc dagger.

‘No!’ Marfach cried out loud. The orcs, restless because the two combatants had stood silent for so long, gave a great shout and pushed forward for a better view. Uafas looked from one to the other, suddenly aware that this contest was not going the way he wanted.

Then Dearfa put both hands on the hilt of the dagger and turned the tip towards himself. Pointing it at his heart he gave Marfach the ghost of a smile then plunged the blade into his chest with such force that it easily pierced his gilded mail. In that instant, Marfach sprang towards him, reaching out to snatch the knife out of Dearfa’s hands, but this time he was not swift enough, and the Elf sank the dagger into his body right to the handle. Marfach reached Dearfa only in time to catch him as his legs gave way and he crumpled to the ground.

Uproar broke out among the orcs. The circle was broken as they flung their shields away and began to argue and fight amongst themselves. Bets had been made and great anticipation aroused, and now the creatures were robbed of their sport. Uafas, himself stunned by what had happened, was forced to use all his powers of command to re-establish order among his orcs.

As the chaos raged around them, Marfach knelt down and raised Dearfa from the sandy ground and held him in his arms. The Elf was dying; blood welled round the blade sunk in his chest and seeped into the fine silver-grey tunic he wore under his armour. But he opened his eyes and looked up at Marfach and he smiled.

‘Forgive me, Marfach...I wronged you...’

‘No..!’ said Marfach. ‘You only did your duty...' Dearfa coughed blood, then said in a whisper;
‘May you return to the halls of Melian soon, brother...I should have died with Haldir at Helm's Deep, only the Ranger Seolta saved me. I abandoned him to hunt you as an enemy.....I have failed both men and Elves!’

Marfach bent close to the dying Elf and said to him;
‘By the stars that shone before the world was made, I swear you were never my enemy, brave Elf of Lorien...’

Perhaps these words, and the mention of his homeland brought Dearfa some consolation, for he smiled again. But then his head rolled back on Marfach’s arm and the hand that gripped the knife fell away. Marfach took it in his own and bowed his head over the dead Elf, saying a silent prayer of farewell;
‘May you find peace, and may it be under the golden leaves of Lothlorien....’

Aragorn dismissed his captains and turned to put on his armour, the armour of Elendil. He yearned to forget his terrible dream and the doubts and fears of the past few days, and to throw himself into the fierce simplicities of battle. All around him the bustle and activity of an army striking camp was overlaid with that feverish anticipation that precedes a fight.

As Aragorn eagerly picked up Anduril and went to buckle it on, Legolas stepped in front of him and took it from his hand with a smile.
‘You cannot arm yourself, my lord Elessar.’

Beside him there was a low growl and Gimli appeared, wrestling with the buckle of a greave. ‘Leave it to us Dwarves to batten on your armour, my friend.’ He said. ‘We probably made it, best let one of us fit it.....’

A short distance away the Black Company were also preparing to march. Callanach fumbled with his sword belt and tugged his cloak around him. His hands were numb in the chilly morning air and he was arming himself as he hastened to answer the summons to Aragorn’s presence. The giant Ranger Teagar walked beside him, his long strides devouring the ground. Suddenly Callanach was stopped short by someone in their way. He looked up.

‘Seolta!’ he gasped. Standing in front of him, his face grey-white and his mail slick with blood, was the Ranger who along with Dearfa the Elf had deserted the Black Company to pursue Marfach.

Seolta smiled faintly. Callanach, in a hurry to report to Aragorn, said;
‘Walk with me, Seolta, I am summoned to the King. How came you back? Did you find Marfach?’

This question Callanach accompanied with an anxious look at Seolta as he stumbled along beside the young Ranger, his face pale. Callanach noticed that the soldier of Gondor at Seolta’s side was holding his arm, either to support him or keep him prisoner. Seolta said in a weary voice;
‘I changed my mind, Callanach, and abandoned the pursuit of Marfach. What I did was all from hatred and foolishness, and I saw it at last. I came back...’

‘And Dearfa?’ asked Callanach. Seolta looked down, unwilling to meet his leader’s gaze.
‘He left me’ he replied simply. ‘He has gone on to find Marfach. He slipped away when I was asleep...’

He looked up at Callanach and there were tears in his eyes.
‘Either one or both of them must be dead by now....’

There was a pained silence. Callanach knew that Seolta had saved Dearfa’s life at Helm’s Deep. It was a measure of the Elf’s hatred for Marfach that he had deserted Seolta in order to find him. Callanach knew he should punish Seolta for leaving the Black Company. But Callanach had no intention of doing so. He placed a hand on Seolta’s shoulder.
‘Welcome back, Seolta. We have sore need of you...’

Then he saw the blood on Seolta’s armour and noticed the man’s deathly pallor.’Are you hurt?’ he asked anxiously.
‘I was wounded by an orc arrow...’ replied Seolta. Callanach glanced at Teagar;
‘Take him back to the Company...’ he said, but Seolta interrupted him.
‘Do not leave me behind, Callanach!’ he pleaded. ‘If I am to die, let it be in battle. I have a lot to make up for....’

Callanach looked at Seolta for some moments then nodded. ‘If you can even walk, you will fight with us...’
And Callanach turned to the soldier who was guarding Seolta.
‘You are dismissed’ he said curtly. The man looked the dark-haired youngster up and down with surprise, then he remembered being told that the leader of the Black Company was a mere boy. He bowed abruptly and turned and went back to his company.

Marfach laid Dearfa gently down on the sand, already stained with blood. He placed one hand over the Elf’s silent heart for a moment and said a quiet farewell. Around him the din of the mutinous orcs had abated as their leader Uafas cracked a great black whip over their heads and bellowed at them to be quiet. Marfach’s face was white and his red eyes blazed. He took one last look at Dearfa’s still white face then stood up to face Uafas.

The Uruk had trouble regaining order amongst his rabble of orcs, but when he looked at Marfach he saw the creature was trembling from head to foot with some strange energy. Uafas assumed Marfach was enraged that the Elf had taken his own life and deprived Marfach of the pleasure of killing him. His red eyes were terrible, and when Marfach suddenly advanced on him Uafas took an involuntary step backwards. Even the riotous orcs noticed Marfach’s fierce look, and at once complete silence fell on their ranks. Into the quiet came Marfach’s voice, loud and commanding;

‘Now, you miserable slave..’ he ordered Uafas. ‘... take me to my lord Sauron. You have delayed me here too long and my master will be angry with me and with you!’

Uafas stared at Marfach in astonishment. Even if he was this Red Dragon – and after all, the hand with its distinguishing mark was missing – Uafas could not allow the stranger to speak to him like that in front of his orcs; his authority must be maintained. He drew his arm back and lashed at Marfach with the great black whip. The red-eyed creature did not flinch, but a red weal appeared on his cheek. A tremor of shock ran through the orcs. Uafas barked at Marfach;

‘I am master here! It is you who are the captive! I will do with you as I please, not as you demand..’
Then before Marfach could reply, Uafas shook the whip at his orcs and shouted;
‘The fun is over, you lazy curs! Go and strike camp. We march in an hour....’

Muttering and shooting looks of suspicion and hatred at Marfach, the orcs began to shuffle off to their camp. When their backs were turned, Uafas stepped up to Marfach who was wiping away the blood from his cut cheek. It ran across the back of his white hand in a long pattern like blood spilt on snow. Uafas stared at it, then at Marfach, whose eyes were still glowing like hot coals. Uafas said in an ominous voice;

‘Marfach, or whatever you are, do not presume too much. I am not afraid of you..’ he gestured to the body of Dearfa lying in the dust. ‘...this could have been a play carefully staged to deceive me; after all, what had either of you to lose?’

Marfach’s pale face had grown even paler and his red eyes flashed. Uafas hurried on;
‘But I am not taking any chances. My orders from the Eye were to bring back to Mordor anything or anyone I find in the wasted lands, dead or alive. If I bring you back to my master, I will only be obeying my orders. What you say to The Dark Lord, and what secrets you hold or do not hold, that is all between you and the Eye....’

Uafas for a moment allowed his glance to stray to the still body of the dead Elf. A shudder seemed to run through his massive frame. He looked at Marfach and said;
‘If you are indeed the Red Dragon, I want no more to do with you...Sauron will know how to treat you.’ Then he stepped up to Marfach and lowering his voice he added;

‘But remember this. The Eye sees all; if you intend to deceive Sauron, you will not succeed. Death will be your prize. The Eye will see through your words, through truth and lies, into your very mind. Your brain will shrivel and turn black under its gaze, like a carcass in the sun. If you try to deceive Him, you will be utterly destroyed, and all you seek to save will be destroyed along with you...’
Then Uafas pointed to Dearfa’s body and added;

‘Marfach, you will wish yourself dead along with your friend....’