The Dragon and the Fox

by Varda

Chapter 95: Breakfast in Mordor

‘Wake up Pippin! It’s time to get moving....’

Peregrine Took groaned, rolled over and untangled himself from his warm Elven cloak. Rubbing his eyes he sat up and looked around.

It was a cold, dreary morning and the rocky landscape stretched away on all sides into grey mist. Black shapes loomed up threateningly but they were only trees growing by the roadside.

The frosty air nipped Pippin's fingers and nose and he wished he was back in his dream. He had been sitting on the bank of the mill pool at Bywater, dozing in the warm June sunshine, his fishing rod lying on the grass at his side. More hardworking hobbits than he were making hay in the fields behind him, and the air was full of the sweetness of new mown grass. A few feet away Merry lay snoring in the sun, his head pillowed on his hands and a straw hat over his face.
‘You won’t catch many fish that way....’ Pippin was about to say, when a sudden yank on Merry’s line sent his rod slithering over the grass like a snake.
‘Merry!’ shouted Pip. ‘Catch it!’

But as Merry scrambled to his feet and lunged after the disappearing rod, a hand grasped Pip’s shoulder and shook it.
‘Come on, Pip! You are a soldier of Gondor now, get up and prepare yourself for the march!’

It was Eomer’s voice. Pip re-opened his eyes with difficulty and looked up at the tall yellow-haired warrior. Eomer was bending over him with an anxious look on his fair, weatherbeaten face.
‘Are you all right, Pippin?’ the Lord of The Mark asked gently.

Pip knew that Eomer was more accustomed to shouting commands at squadrons of warriors than solicitously asking a hobbit how he felt. Stricken by shame, he scrambled quickly to his feet and answered in as stern and soldierly a voice as he could manage;
‘Yes, sir! I am fine...I..I will be ready to march in an instant...’

Eomer kept his hand on the little creature’s shoulder and raised an eyebrow. Then he turned away, hiding a smile and calling orders to his men.

Pippin had been placed in the care of the new King of Rohan on the army’s march to the Black Gates of Mordor. Eomer bore the tiny hobbit behind him on his great dappled grey stallion and treated Pippin with great kindness. But like the rest of the army Eomer was preoccupied by the prospect of the approaching battle with the armies of Sauron. A battle even their leaders know they could not win...

Pippin swung his arms to warm up. It was cold for March, and the hobbit’s breath steamed as he looked about hopefully for breakfast. Towards the East the old king’s road ran on to Mordor, the direction they would soon take. Hoofprints in the mud had frozen to form silver half-moons of ice but their journey, overshadowed by the darkness from Mordor, would be anything but magical. All round Pippin saw silent men with downcast faces.

‘I wish Merry were here!’ he sighed. Pippin had never been away from his older cousin, except for the time he served the Steward of Gondor, and that service had not lasted long. Even when he and Merry had been taken by the Uruk-hai, they at least had one another.

‘But maybe it is best that Merry is not on this gloomy march....’ thought Pip looking in the direction of Aragorn who sat on his horse Brego as his army formed up around him. The king’s face was pale and grim, and contrasted with his elaborately wrought armour and blood red cloak.
‘Aragorn doesn’t think we will come back ’ thought Pippin. ‘Neither does Eomer. No-one does..’

A vision of the summer fields of the Shire crept into Pippin’s mind; home had never seemed so dear, or so far away.

‘Oh how did I ever get into this mess?’ the hobbit wondered bitterly. But the moment of despair quickly passed. Pippin sighed and said to himself;
‘I mustn’t let anyone know I am afraid. I can’t let the Shire down, not now, not in front of all these great princes. I can’t let you down either, Merry. I am glad you are not here. For if the worst comes, at least one of us will survive, even if it is only till Minas Tirith itself is taken...’

But just as Pippin thought about Minas Tirith, a vision flashed before his eyes; it was of a white tower, wreathed in flames, with below it the seven levels of the city, also burning...Pippin gasped as if he had been struck and sat down abruptly on the ground; it was the very same vision of Minas Tirith on fire that he had seen when he looked into the Palantir....

‘Breakfast, holbytla!’ said a voice in his ear, startling him and making him look up. It was Eomer, holding a bowl of warm broth and a bannock of barley bread. But the lord of the Mark looked at Pippin’s stark white face and his smile faded.
‘What is it, Pippin?’ he asked. ‘You look as if you have seen a ghost!’

Pippin stared wildly at Eomer and groped for something to say. The incident when he stole the Palantir and looked into it was a cause of such deep shame to the hobbit that the very memory of it made his cheeks burn. But he had not thought about the cursed orb, nor of what he had seen in it, until this moment. And even this searing vision had come unannounced, and unbidden. Peregrine Took had seen the fall of Minas Tirith and he knew he must not speak of it to anyone. Maybe Sauron, having once seen him in the stone, was still pursuing him...

‘It is nothing!’ Pippin stammered, and nodded at the bowl. ‘Just terrible hunger, Lord Eomer. We hobbits fear nothing but starvation!’

Eomer’s look of concern vanished and he laughed and handed the bowl to Pippin.
‘Enjoy it then, and be quick to finish it! We are about to move out....’

Eomer turned away and Pippin took the bowl of broth and barley bread and at once started eating. The vision was pushed to the back of his mind and he saw only the soup, thin as it was..

A fat, round-shouldered orc in a battered, rusty helmet and a greasy apron shoved a wooden bowl into Marfach’s hands.

‘Breakfast, Lord Elf!’ the creature grunted, then shuffled off along the ranks of seated and squatting uruk-hai, doling out bowls of slop to each and roaring with laughter at his own wit.

Marfach, sitting on the ground with his long legs stretched out in front of him to ease the ache from a day of marching, held the bowl gingerly and peered without appetite into its contents. A putrid whiff made him cough, and the movement jolted the bowl and disturbed the stew. Pieces of matter that could have once been vegetables rotated slowly in half-melted fat. Curious in spite of himself, Marfach shook the bowl again and a chunk of what seemed at first to be meat turned gradually like a corpse in a slow-moving river and revealed itself to be an eye.

Marfach stared at it in horrified fascination and the eye stared back. It is some stolen sheep or goat, no doubt, he thought. But then he saw that the eye, though cloudy from boiling, was blue.

With a curse, Marfach flung the bowl away with all his might. He had tried to resign himself to what must be his fate, doomed to fight for Mordor to save the life of Callanach. For someone who had lost his past, a lost future was not so hard to bear. But there were some things that even Marfach could not endure.

The jettisoned bowl flew through the air and whacked an uruk on the head, spraying its fetid contents over his leathery face. With a snort of anger, the creature started up and charged at Marfach, who watched him coming with a gleam in his red eyes.

Their blood lust roused by the prospect of a fight, the host of orcs got to its feet and closed in as the uruk dived on top of Marfach and the two were bowled over, kicking and punching. Then there was the white flash of a blade and a yell of warning, and just as suddenly the rout parted and the attacking orc staggered back, staring stupidly at a dark trickle of blood escaping from a split gouged in his black armour.

As a dead silence fell on his comrades, the orc dabbed mechanically at his wound with a mailed paw, then without any warning he keeled over and fell flat on the trampled mud with a dull thump, dead. Marfach scrambled to his feet and looked down at the body with loathing. His white face was even paler and his red eyes blazied. He held a knife with a long, silver blade in his hand. Black blood dripped from its tip. Glancing round the rabble of orcs he said in Elvish;
‘Anyone else want to discuss breakfast?’

Before the orcs could gather their wits and attack again, their overseer appeared as if from nowhere. He forced a way through the mob and cracked his long leather whip. The orcs gave way at once and the overseer saw the dead body on the ground, with Marfach standing over it. He spat on the corpse and turning he roared at the crowd of watching orcs;
‘See what happens when you disobey orders? Youse were told not to touch the Elf! Now get back to your places and leave ‘im be!’

The orcs blinked at him, and a sullen murmur went up.
‘Why?’ shouted a voice at the back. ‘Why do we have to have him with us? He’s bad luck, the Eye is on him....’

The overseer looped his whip and planting his thick armoured legs far apart he hooked his gloved hands into his belt. He nodded and his hideous mask of a face settled into a grin.
‘Well said!' he growled. 'Maybe you are not all as stupid as you look! You are quite right, the Eye is looking after this HANDS OFF HIM!’

As the muttering subsided, the overseer turned to Marfach. He looked at the upturned bowl and said with a sneer;
‘What’s the matter, Elf? Isn’t breakfast to your satisfaction?’

Marfach gazed coolly back at the creature, gauging its height and strength, wondering if he could break its neck....
‘On the contrary...’ he replied in a clear voice. ‘The fare here is excellent. It is the company that stinks...’

The overseer dropped his whip and his smile vanished. His hand hovered over the hilt of a short black-bladed sword at his side....
‘Keep your dirty paw off that!’ came a voice from behind him. The overseer looked round in surprise to see Uafas pushing through the throng of orcs.

Even amongst these choice warriors of Mordor Uafas stood out as a giant, a great red eye on the breastplate of his black armour denoting his superior rank and a helm crested with a plume of battered black vulture feathers accentuating his height.

The overseer backed away as Uafas wrapped a massive hand around Marfach’s upper arm and hauled him out of the ranks of orcs. Throwing an intimidatory glare at the overseer the Uruk marched him past the angry mob and out of the bare hollow where they had rested for the night. A narrow stony path led up to a ridge under the red Mordor sky.

Uafas hurried Marfach along this path till they were out of sight of the orcs then he let him go.
‘I can’t leave you alone, can I?’ growled the Uruk.
‘What are you doing?’ Marfach asked.
‘Saving your skin, which is to say, saving my own.’
Marfach shook his head.
‘What do you mean?’

Uafas regarded Marfach with his deep-set yellow eyes.
‘You are in the service of the Eye now, or so I am told….’
He paused for an answer but Marfach did not reply. The Uruk went on;
‘…..but the Great Eye knows the deceitful ways of Elvish scum, and of your allies from the Western ratlands too. Often you choose death rather than suffer disgrace, and provoke us into killing you. The Great Eye does not trust you, and will not permit you to have such an escape. Any who slay you will suffer something far worse than death, and the whole army of Sauron has been warned of this. ‘

Uafas fell silent, looking at Marfach for a reaction. The red eyes still burned and the pale face was set and grim, but Marfach was silent. Uafas shrugged and said;
‘As long as you know not to try any more of those tricks....'

For a moment Uafas peered at the unspeaking Marfach. Then he said;
'For some reason they want you to lead their army. Lead us to desctruction you will, is what I think. But the great ones have spoken. Now come and take up your duties, loyal and honest servant of the Great Eye….’

With that Uafas turned and gave Marfach a rough push to send him in front of him back down the bare ridge of stone.

As he descended, Marfach glanced up and for a moment his breath was taken away by the sight of the barren landscape of Mordor, countless hills and vales of blasted ground stretching away to the dark hulk of Mount Doom in the distance. But what was worse than the ruined land was the great army that covered it; Marfach had lived many ages of Middle Earth, and had fought many wars, even in the ancient days before the time of men. But never had he seen so great or so fell a host. In the sickly morning light they were rapidly assembling, forming ranks behind their dark banners, preparing to issue forth and engulf the lands of Men.

Close by, almost under the escarpment where Marfach stood, was a legion of Easterlings, likewise preparing to march out. These would form the spearhead of the army with which Sauron intended to crush the forces of the West even now approaching his gates.

Trailed by Uafas, Marfach walked down to the plain and past the Easterling ranks of red and gold, their tall hooked pikes serried in order, the steel blades glinting in the smoky light of Mordor. The Easterlings wore gilded helms with visors that hid their faces, but their eyes, black as obsidian, looked out at the ravaged land of Mordor without expression and followed Marfach’s tall figure in its torn Elven mail as he passed them by.

At the head of the Easterling army the chieftains sat on their black horses under banners of gold emblazoned with red serpents, and as the wind moved the banners the serpents seemed to writhe and hiss. Marfach looked up at the vizored faces of the chieftains. Often he had faced Easterlings in battle and knew them to be fierce and cruel warriors. But they were also men.

‘How can men fight alongside monsters?’ Marfach projected the question, hoping it would enter the thoughts of the Easterling captains. He opened his own mind to receive any reply. From all the Easterling champions waiting to pass out through the Black Gates came the same thought;
‘Today we will crush our ancient foes, the Men of Gondor, and drink their blood….’

Marfach closed his thoughts, and continued walking with his eyes fixed on the ground.

Just then he heard the sound of hooves approaching. Uafas put out a mailed hand to stop him and they turned to see a great black horse dashing towards them.

This steed was taller than any ordinary horse but gaunt as a skeleton and its head was little more than a skull. Red fire burned in the sockets where the eyes should have been and for livery this beast was clad in hangings of dusty black, like grave cloths. Seated in the high saddle on its back was a figure also clad in black, but with gear richly inlaid with silver, black onyx and jet, and its clothes were of finest silk. But from all there exuded a smell of rottenness and decay, as if from a corpse.

On the rider’s head was a tall black crown with sharp tines, like a circle of broken teeth, and over his face was a thick black veil. This veil left bare the mouth, but it was a mouth such as no living man ever possessed, cavernous with lips blackened as if with dried blood. The mouth was set in a grimace that showed yellow teeth and behind the teeth a black tongue that curled out and ran over the lips and the stained teeth like a glistening snake.

This horrifying figure struck fear even into the assembled legions of orcs, which quickly backed away, and the Easterling horses snorted and sidled restlessly. Attended by a clutch of black-garbed attendants the horseman guided its fell mount along the rocky path to where Marfach was standing. Ignoring Uafas, the black figure inclined its crowned helm to Marfach and said in a harsh, inhuman voice;

‘I am the Mouth of Sauron, and I welcome Marfach the loyal servant of the Eye! My master, Lord of the Earth, orders me to greet you with titles of commander of the Black Host! This day you will wear the livery of Mordor and fight at my side when we defeat the forces of the West, which even now draw near the end of their foolhardy march on the Gates of Mordor…’

Marfach was aware that Uafas had backed away and he was standing alone in front of the Mouth of Sauron. The dark figure’s words dismayed Marfach, but he tried to put aside his fear and dredge deeply buried memories to know what this creature could be, and if he could outwit it.

But all Marfach could recall, from the choas of ancient battles, were Numenoreans who had chosen the service of Sauron and had fought beside Marfach against the West. The Black Numenoreans they had been called…..

The Mouth snapped his long skeletal fingers at an attendant who hurried forward bearing in his hands a coat of black mail, a surcoat emblazoned with the Red Eye, and a helm with a jagged silver crown. Laid on top of it all was a long sword of black steel in a scabbard marked with a red dragon. The Mouth said to Marfach;
'Your armour for the battle, Marfach Killer of Men!'

The sky had gone dark and Marfach was finding it difficult to breath. The Mouth spoke again, in a voice that rang with anticipated triumph.

‘We are brothers, Marfach. Once we fought together for Lord Sauron. Now I am raised up by his mighty hand, and no longer bear any petty name of my own, but boast only the title he gave me, Lieutenant of The Tower of Barad-dur! Soon you too will forget what name you once had before you served The Eye. Take your place at my side on the day of our great victory over the downfallen West!’