The Dragon and the Fox

by Varda

Chapter 93: The Doorkeeper of Mordor

East of the Crossroads, in that valley where Faramir had ambushed the men of Harad under the startled eyes of Sam and Frodo, a force of Orcs and Easterlings waited to attack Aragorn as he led the army of the West towards the Black Gates.

At the place where the hobbits first saw an Oliphaunt, an arm of the Eastern Mountains was thrust out, like a groping claw, into the once fertile and peaceful plain of the Anduin. The road snaked around upon itself almost into a circle, forced into a deep cutting by the steep hills on either side. It was overlooked all round, and during the long wars with Mordor both sides had taken advantage of this narrow wooded ravine to ambush their opponents. The overhanging rocks were dark and jagged, and the place was gloomy with the spirits of all who had perished in battle there.

The very same Rangers who had attacked the Easterlings that day scouted silent as the ghosts of the valley, and spied out the enemy in their places of hiding, waiting with bow and crossbow for the army of the West to march through the pass.
‘They think they will surprise us...’ said a grim-faced Aragorn to Callanach, who stood silently beside his king, awaiting orders.
‘...but it is we who will surprise them..’

Aragorn spoke in a low voice so only the young commander of the Black Company could hear him;
‘I cannot lose any of my army, Callanach...’ he said ‘.....we are too few already. Much as our men thirst for battle after days of hunting an invisible enemy, I can’t send them into needless danger. This is a task for a small, swift mounted troop; the Grey Company I wish to keep with me and the Rangers of Ithilien have no horses. Your company, the Black Company, still have the mounts they took from Rohan. Now I ask you to ride West and outflank these hidden foes and attack them. Yet do all with cunning rather than with daring, for I would not have you lose a single man....’

Then remembering that the Black Company comprised of Elves as well as men, Aragorn added with a smile;
‘...and try not to lose any of your Elves, either..’

Dawn was lightening the sky, or what dawn could creep under the heavy black cloud that hung over Mordor. Even with its ceaseless fume, however, a long band of glowing red and gold lay on the horizon, and in the clear yellow light everyone felt their spirits rise, and they struck camp in a better mood than they had made it the night before. Word had gone round about the ambush, and the men felt this was something they could do, a way to strike a blow at their enemies. Not like their ultimate goal, a futile battle at the gates of Mordor...

Callanach bowed low.
‘My lord Elessar...’ he said ‘I am honoured to lead the Black Company to counter this threat...’
And the lad turned to hurry back to his command. But Aragorn caught his arm.
‘Gently, now, young Storm..’ he said with a smile. ‘ not live up to your name this time. Let there be no feats of heroism, no attempts to impress me. Believe me, I am already impressed that you are still with us on this fool’s errand. Lose not a single man, and it will be the feat I want most to see...’

Callanach bowed again.
‘I shall obey the king’s commands!’ he said with spirit, then turned and hurried off with the giant Ranger Teagar beside him.

‘D’you think he’ll listen?’ growled Gimli. ‘He’s young, and the young are all hotheads. At least...’ he added frowning ‘..I was!’
‘I find it hard to think a Dwarf could ever be young, let alone hotheaded ...’ mused Legolas, who was untangling the laces of the king’s gilded vambraces. ‘ people seem to be born old, like the rocks you spend your time hacking away at.....’

‘You impudent young rascal...’ exclaimed Gimli, dropped a breastplate onto Aragorn’s foot.
‘Ignore him!’ said Aragorn impatiently, rubbing his bruised toes. ‘Or I will be a cripple before I go into battle...!’

As Gimli bent muttering to his task again, Aragorn added half to himself;
’Legolas has been on this earth some thousands of years longer than you, so don’t let him call you old, Gimli!’
Now it was Legolas who frowned, and Gimli, snapping the straps of the greave shut, grinned and winked at him.
‘It is how old you feel that matters, is it not, Master Elf?’

The Black Company made haste to prepare their horses for the sortie. As he saddled his little Haradrim pony, Star, Callanach saw Seolta, moving slowly and with a dew of sweat on his grey face, walk in among the horses and single out a bay with a white blaze on its face. Slowly and painfully, the Ranger made several unsuccessful attempts to haul himself onto its back. Pausing for breath, he stood swaying, clutching a strand of the animal’s long mane. Teagar spoke behind Callanach, making him jump.
‘I would not bring him with us, Storm..’

The young Ranger looked up at Teagar
‘He’s more a danger to us than to the enemy....’ the big Ranger said. Callanach nodded reluctantly. Then as they both watched one of the Elves went up to Seolta, said something to him then with one easy movement, lifted the Ranger into the saddle. In the same moment the leader of the Galadhrim of the Black Company, Rosc, appeared before Callanach and bowed.
‘Captain....’ he said. ‘....the Elves of Lothlorien await your battle orders....’

Callanach looked past Rosc to where the Galadhrim had assembled. In the distance, with their cloaks of shimmering green and grey, the Elves of Lothlorien were hard to see, almost blending into the background. But close up, their grey cloaks cast back to reveal their shining, overlapping armour of gold tinged with viridian and with their great curved bows and long-handled swords in their hands, the Galadhrim were solid and real and with all their warlike splendour, menacing even to their allies.

The Elves had a habit too of always keeping the source of light at their backs, so their faces were hard to see. And their leader, Rosc, was a good head taller than Callanach, who had to crane his neck to see the Galadhrim leader as he spoke;
‘Thank you, Rosc’ he said, trying to sound as if he was in charge. Then Callanach looked uneasily towards Seolta. Rosc, following his gaze, said simply;
‘The Ranger Seolta was wounded. On my orders, Nathair took an orc arrowhead out of his shoulder....’

Callanach gazed up uneasily at Rosc; he knew that the Galadhrim, although possessed of healing arts in the way all Elves were, also had among them one of exceptional skill. Some among the army of men had sought him out for injuries received in the Battle of the Pelennor. The Elf was called Nathair, which in Elvish meant ‘Serpent’, for this Elf used venom drawn from the fangs of snakes for healing purposes.

‘But he should be sent back to Minas Tirith!’ said Callanach. ‘I thank you...and Nathair, for trying to help him, but he must not be allowed to ride out with us today...’

Rosc had been standing beside the young Ranger with an unreadable expression on his fair face. The Elf-lord and harpist to Galadriel herself had been unwilling to assume the mantle of leader of the Galadhrim when their other leaders had been killed at Helm’s Deep. Now he looked over at Seolta then back at Callanach and said quietly;

‘Captain Callanach, it may be that the man is not fit. But who needs to be fit to die?’
Then Rosc pointed to Nathair, a tall, black-haired Elf with dark, almond-shaped eyes.
‘Nathair took out the arrowhead. There was no etching on the tip, as it would have been if it had been poisoned. Anyway, ’ and here Rosc smiled ‘ not concern yourself with Seolta; I and my Galadhrim will look after him.’

An awkward silence fell. At last Callanach said, in a voice of as much authority as he could muster;
‘It is our plan to outflank the ambush and drive the orcs and Easterlings down into the valley. I want you and your Galadhrim to be waiting for them. You can hide in the woods at the foot of the cliffs.’
Rosc smiled.
‘We do not have to hide in the woods, Captain. When an Elf enters a forest, he becomes the forest....’

And with a mysterious wink, Rosc swept a bow before the young Ranger and accompanied by Nathair, walked away quickly and were soon lost amongst the throng of men and horses.

Callanach stared after them unhappily. Teagar said to him;
‘Callanach, don’t be put out; Rosc does not mean any affront. Remember, Seolta saved one of them, the Elf Dearfa. Then Dearfa deserted Seolta, who was then attacked and wounded. I think they feel their honour has been attainted...'

Callanach nodded slowly. The two Rangers turned to walk back to the Black Company. Teagar added;
‘Dearfa has not returned. I think perhaps the worst has befallen him, and the Elves, in that way they have, know he is dead. Their service to Seolta was not just kindness; it was a sort of funeral rite, paying a debt for one of their own who will not come back...’

When his Uruks were ready, Uafas led them out of camp, only not towards the West as they had expected, but Eastwards, back to Mordor. There was muttering in the ranks; even orcs preferred to be out of the direct line of sight of the great Eye, and in the wasted land there was freedom and the chance of plunder. Going back to Mordor spelt discipline and maybe punishment.

But Uafas brooked no protest. His heavy black whip sang over the bowed backs of his Uruks.
‘Shut up and march, you lazy scum!’ he bellowed. ‘We have to report back. What? Are you all generals now? Just shut up and march!’

Beside Uafas at the head of the column of Uruks walked Marfach. He limped slightly from the wound in his thigh, and his face was pale and battered. But he made himself keep pace with Uafas’s long, bow-legged strides. They marched in silence, but Marfach was thinking about Dearfa, and wondering where Liofa and Callanach were.

Doubt had arisen in Marfach’s mind; the more he tried to undo the harm he had done, the more he brought disaster on his friends. An evil doom seemed to follow him. He wondered now was he really capable of carrying out his task for Aragorn; maybe he would only endanger the cause of the West. He remembered Uafas’s words; the Eye could see into one’s very soul. Maybe he was bringing disaster on the very king he sought to serve.

Just then Uafas raised his blunt dark head and sniffed the air. He gave a crow of warning. Looking up, Marfach saw that they had rounded a headland and there, before them, stood the Black Gates of Mordor.

This was the sight that had greeted Frodo and Sam and Gollum, had Marfach only known. And like the Ringbearer and his companions, Marfach realised he had reached a turning point; would he really let himself be taken back into the land of shadow? The Uruk company trudged on, a little more quickly now they were under the eyes of the orc sentries on the gates, and Marfach’s hesitation was ended by a rough shove in the back. He shook his head and started forward. His path was set. He must bide what happened with what courage and strength he had.

They marched across the blasted terrain in front of the Gates with what order they could muster. Nothing grew here, it was a poisoned valley overflown by kites that soared in the thick dusty air, ready to pick the bones of any creature unwise enough to venture into the dark vale. There was a deafening screech of metal on stone, and the great gates began to grind open.

Marfach looked up. High stone towers loomed on either side of the Gates, but along the tops of the gates themselves were walkways thronged with rows of watching orcs. Behind the gates, on a high iron platform, two huge mountain trolls, harnessed and shackled, hauled giant chains that opened the Gates.

The column of Uruks marched through the narrow crack in the gates in good order, aware of critical eyes upon them. Marfach glanced up at the stained, streaked iron of the great doors. How many had entered here and never returned to the living, growing world again? Despite his resolve, he felt a cold shudder run through him. The doors were tipped with spikes, and on the spikes were the heads of the enemies of Mordor who had been slain in battle; Elves, men and Dwarves. Some had been there for ages, and weather and the giant crows of Mordor had reduced them to grinning skulls. Others dripped fresh blood, and still had recognisable features.

Horrified, Marfach dropped his gaze and walked on with a set white face.
‘What is wrong with you?’ said a small, chilling voice in his heart. ‘Don’t you know what your master is capable of? Soon your own head will decorate my gates, your long red hair flying in the wind!’

Marfach gritted his teeth and shook his head to get rid of the voice. He had known he would hear that voice as soon as he entered Mordor; it was the voice of the Eye. Marfach did not look at the heads on the iron gates again, and strove to call another memory to his mind....

The moonlit Elven city of Doriath spread out before Marfach, the lights from a thousand silver lanterns glittering under the stars. Towers and domes loomed out of the mist and trees grew along the streets and squares, lights twinkling in their leaves. The soft music of a hundred fountains could be heard above the sounds of a harp drifting out of the great quartz and amethyst hall behind them.

Beside Marfach on the wide marble terrace of her palace stood Melian, her face raised to the stars, as if she drew from them the grace that manifest itself in her shining grey eyes and pale, fair face. She raised her arms briefly, as if saluting them, and Marfach saw a ring of diamond and emerald on her hand. Then she dropped her arms and turned to Marfach with a sigh. The great city lying in splendour behind her, Melian said quietly;
‘Doriath is very fair, is it not?’

Marfach nodded but before he could reply Melian went on;
‘Yet even Doriath will fall, and one day be no more. Such is the fate of what we Elves have built on earth...’
Marfach said with passion;
‘I will not live to see that day! I will die in battle defending Doriath!’

Melian turned to Marfach and she was not smiling any more. She held out her hands to him, open palms upward. Marfach looked, and in the moonlight he saw that one hand held a jewel of perfectly clear crystal, and the other held a shining black stone. Marfach frowned.
‘What are these, my lady?’
Melian replied;
‘These are your future, Croga. When this city falls, you will not die in its defence. No-one, not even I, can see the future. But I can see fate in the eyes of men and Elves, and I see you will enter darkness, not death. This...’ and she held up the black stone ‘ what lies ahead for you.’

Marfach gazed at Melian in dismay. The lady closed her hand on the black stone and held up the crystal.
‘But this is what you really are, Croga; bright, loyal and possessed of courage beyond all other Elves. That courage will keep you alive when others perish. So it is your gift, but also your doom.’
‘But...’ broke in Marfach. ‘ can I live, if all I cherish is destroyed?’
‘You will enter darkness, as I said...’ went on Melian, but then held up the crystal stone, which caught the starlight and glittered briefly. ‘.....but one’s deepest nature cannot ever truly be destroyed. Your courage will preserve you, and you will gain the light again.’

Marfach looked down, unable to speak. Melian laid a white hand on his head and said;
‘Always remember to keep hope alive, and know this; in a time that is long to come, if you can recall this night, and this city, and my words, then the darkness is almost over...’

The warm, scented night of Doriath, full of sweet music and silver lights, was snatched away and Marfach found himself staring down at the broken ground at his feet. He was now within the Gates of Mordor. When he was under the power of Sauron, he could not recall Melian and her prophecy. But it was a mark of his liberation that he could remember her now, and it gave him strength to endure what might be to come.

Once inside Mordor, the Uruks halted at an order from Uafas. Behind them, the great gates ground closed again with a dull boom that echoed in Marfach’s heart. The trolls ceased to strain against their harnesses, letting their chains fall slack as they growled at their drivers who had urged them on with sharp goads.

Just then one of the trolls looked down and its tiny eyes, which were used to the dim light of underground caves and saw but hazily in the outside air, fixed on Marfach.

At once the creature gave a grunt, then a roar. Getting up off its haunches it shuffled to the side of its walkway and peered down at the figure on the ground as if trying to see through a snowstorm. Then it raised its huge head and sniffed the smoky air.

Trolls can smell better than they can see, and when the creature caught Marfach’s scent it at once began to bellow. The other troll on the far side of the gate caught his fellow creature’s mood, and also ignoring the prodding of his orc overseers he shuffled to the edge of the great gangway and waving his head from side to side he too caught Marfach’s scent and began to bellow loudly.

Soon the whole dismal vale was echoing to the thunderous howls of the trolls. All the orcs left what they were doing and ran to see what was causing the commotion. Uafas looked round in alarm. He put a hand on his sword hilt and hissed at Marfach;
‘You are attracting attention, which is just what I don’t need! Whatever you are doing, stop it!’

Marfach looked up at the trolls, which were by now pulling on their chains and beating themselves with their mighty fists. Marfach felt only pity for the creatures. Living deep in the earth, with no natural evil in them, the trolls had been trapped and forced by Sauron into slavery, or even worse, trained by cruelty to kill and crush in battle. Not well intentioned towards mankind to begin with, they had been transformed by the power of Mordor into destroying monsters.

But somehow, the presence of Marfach unravelled their evil conditioning. Suddenly they remembered their origins in the depths of earth, sleeping for whole seasons, tunnelling and hewing, meaning harm to none if none brought harm to them. They smote themselves with their shackles till they drew blood, and eventually broke their bonds and turned to scramble down the steep pathway that led from the top of the gates to the ground.

At once panic broke out amongst the garrison of orcs on the gates. Seeing the trolls unshackled, they fled before them. The great creatures ignored their former tormentors, and seemed only intent on gaining level ground, and freedom.

‘I don’t know what you are doing..’ snarled Uafas to Marfach. ‘But stop it right now! We will be blamed for this, and skinned alive!’

Marfach looked at Uafas. The Uruk leader was right; whatever chance he had of giving Sauron a message would not be helped if he had first caused havoc by freeing the Trolls of the Gates.

Marfach turned to face the beasts; he closed his eyes and concentrated.

For a few moments nothing happened. The great beasts continued to gallop down the narrow stone path, knocking orcs out of their way to hurtle to the ground far below. But then the monsters slowed their pace. They began to swing their great heads from side to side, as if baffled to find themselves on the steep rocky path. At last they stopped, sat down on their great haunches and began to whine as if they were lost.

At once their handlers rushed down the path after them. Using their long sharp lances, they prodded the great beasts mercilessly and herded them back up to the walkways where they hastily reassembled their shackles and bolted them fast again. The trolls sat blinking bemusedly, looking out over the dark vale, as if they were recovering from a lightning strike.

Uafas glared at Marfach.
‘That might have cost us both our heads. Don’t play any more tricks....oh no...’

The last words were spoken at the sight of a tall hooded figure clad in black and riding a skeleton-thin horse which had emerged from the tower on the North side of the gate. The figure spurred its mount down to the road and stopped in front of Uafas and Marfach.

‘Halt!’ he cried in a loud grating voice. He looked at Uafas and said;
‘Just where do you think you are going? You should be in Gondor, harrying our foes. Why have you returned?’

‘I bring a captive for interrogation’ replied Uafas quickly, bowing low and indicating Marfach.
‘It is as I was ordered...’
‘Very well..’ replied the black figure. ‘Leave him here and return to your duties on the battlefront...’

There was silence. Uafas had no intention of giving up his captive. Not out of any care for what might happen to Marfach, but because he suspected there could be a reward for bringing him to Sauron, and he wanted to be the one to receive, it, not this idle black scarecrow.

‘I wish to present the captive to the Eye myself...’ said Uafas.

The black mounted figure gave a strangled squawk of rage, and turned his masked face towards Uafas.
‘How dare you!’ he at last managed to hiss. ‘I am in charge of the Gates of Mordor; I am Sauron’s Doorkeeper, and I decide who passes in and out, and I will decide who brings captives to Sauron....’

‘That is what I told him!’ put in Marfach cheerfully. ‘Just give me up to the nearest guard, I said, and get yourself safely back to the battlefront! Because when the Eye lights on me, anyone near will catch it too! I bring bad luck to anything I touch!’

At these words, both the skeletal, black-robed Doorkeeper and Uafas turned to stare at Marfach. He gave them an idiotic smile.
‘I know the game is up and my head will roll. Oh do I deserve it! Deserting the Boss to lead an army for that bragging idiot Saruman, what was I thinking? I deserve to be skinned and boiled! At least I can console myself with the knowledge that whatever happens, I had it coming! But knowing the Boss, he will be so mad he won’t boil me on my own!’

And Marfach bent over and laughed heartily, loud and long, slapping his thigh, while Uafas and the Doorkeeper exchanged bemused looks over his head.

At last Marfach straightened up, wiping tears of mirth from his eyes. The Doorkeeper had his hood turned towards this strange-looking captive, in his long ragged Elven cloak and red dreadlocks. The Doorkeeper’s hidden eyes were studying Marfach carefully, weighing up the possibilities, trying to decide if Marfach was feigning. But the Doorkeeper had never seen anything like Marfach; once inside the Gates of Mordor, fear like a deadly disease invaded every being. The Doorkeeper could not believe that anyone could pretend to laugh in Mordor.

‘Very well, keep your captive!’ he snarled at Uafas. ‘Only get him and your filthy boars out of my Gateway. Now!’

Uafas bristled for a moment, not liking to be spoken to by some officious rag on a stick in such a way; he was an Uruk of Mordor, and as old as any Elf. But he wanted to get away with his prize without any further questioning, so bending his head to hide the pure hate in his eyes, he turned and shouting a gruff order to his men, he led them down the wide rocky track that led to the plain of Gorgoroth.

Stumbling along the rough path, Marfach raised his eyes to look at the long row of distant peaks to the North, jagged and black as dragon’s teeth. Then he looked ahead, and saw ridge after ridge of scorched, grey land, bare of all vegetations except stands of dead, withered grass. Flickering over this dead waste was the red light from Barad-dur, sweeping inexorably backwards and forwards.

‘Have I really come back to this?’ thought Marfach dismally. Then he remembered Melian’s words;
‘...for you are blessed, and cursed, with courage beyond that of all other Elves in Middle Earth....’

Marfach started walking forward with his head bent towards the burnt earth.
‘But will courage be enough...?’