The Dragon and the Fox

by Varda

Chapter 98:  Stars of Mordor

Next day at dawn Aragorn at last led his army into view of the Black Gates, the doors into Mordor. As they approached from the North West the Gates suddenly stood forth in the sunrise, their towers silhouetted black against a sky of blood.

For all their resolve, the Captains of the West hesitated, taking deep breaths and glancing at each other. Pippin, clinging on to Eomer’s armour with white knuckles, heard Gimli mutter under his breath;
‘Will the dusk be as bloody as the dawn?’ and the hobbit saw Legolas turn in the saddle to exchange a grim look with his Dwarf companion. Even the brave Elf was pale.

‘Press forward at once!’ said Gandalf to Aragorn. ‘Let there be no time for fear...’

Aragorn urged Brego into a gallop and the Captains followed close behind him. Under their feet the ancient highway of Gondor suddenly vanished and the army found itself crossing a landscape torn and harrowed as if by an angry giant.
‘The road of the Kings ends here.’ said Aragorn. ‘Now, the only path leads into Mordor....’

Overhead, on the walkways atop the gates of Mordor there were stationed mountain trolls, kept in chains to haul open the massive doors when there was need to let some host in or out. A hot, stinking breeze blew from the East and wafted the stench of the trolls over the army. At once the horses began to neigh and rear up, fighting their bits, terrified of the great monsters looming on the gates above them.

Aragorn looked thoughtfully at the animals and said;
‘Order the men to dismount and turn their horses loose. We will keep a few for the captains and their guards, so that we may advance to a parlay and retreat swiftly if need be. But the army must now advance and meet the foe on foot. No charger, however brave, can be made to go closer to Mordor. Dismount!’’

At Aragorn’s command all those in the army who still had horses dismounted and turned them loose. At first, unexpectedly set free, the horses eagerly galloped away from the foul sight and smell of the trolls. But soon, finding themselves riderless and unguided, they wheeled about and came to a halt, shaking their manes and looking lost.

‘What will happen to them?’ Pippin asked anxiously, remembering how the Fellowship had set Bill free before entering Moria, and how upset poor Sam had been to say farewell to the old pony.
‘Will they be all right?’ the hobbit went on. ‘I mean, there are lots of orcs about, and I am sure they would love some nice horse cutlets....’

Hearing this Gandalf laughed and said;
‘By the end of this day, Master Peregrine, I fear you might have to more cause to worry about nice hobbit cutlets. But do not trouble yourself about our faithful steeds. I will command Shadowfax to send them safely on their way...’
‘At least they will survive this day....’ thought Aragorn grimly.

Gandalf dismounted from Shadowfax and spoke some words in his ear. At once the great steed sped away, pausing only to gather the other horses behind him before leading them off across the desolate plain, his long silver-grey mane and tail streaming out behind him like a shining banner. When he had guided the other horses to the road, Shadowfax as if at some hidden signal left them and galloped back to Gandalf. He approached the wizard with his proud neck arched and his long silky mane sweeping the rough ground. Gandalf greeted him with a gentle hand on his forehead and quiet words of praise. Then he turned to Aragorn.
‘It is time, Elessar....’ he said.

At the rear of the army, the Black Company also set free the steeds which they had stolen from the men of Rohan. Callanach dismounted from his little Haradrim pony, Star. But just as he was about to let the horse go he turned to Liofa and said;
‘I had forgotten Star was your horse, my friend. You found him at the Battle of the Fords, now set him free before the Battle of the Black Gates....’

Callanach handed the reins to Liofa who unbuckled the bridle and took it off. Then he stroked the little star-shaped blaze on the horse’s face, for which he had been named, and he spoke to the beast in Elvish. He remembered how Marfach had ridden Star into the orc camp and rescued him after the Battle of the Fords, where Theodred son of King Theoden had been slain. Now they faced another battle, where many more would be slain. But at least this time Star would be safely away from it. Liofa slapped his flank and shouted;
‘Go! You are free now, go!’

A cloud of dust arose in the distance as the other horses galloped away. But the little Haradrim pony did not join them. He stood flicking his ears backwards and forwards, his large dark eyes fixed on Liofa. The Elf turned and the horse took a step as if to follow him. Liofa raised a hand to forbid him and called ‘Daro!’

At the Elvish command Star halted and stood looking on wistfully as his master walked away. After he had taken a dozen strides, the young Ranger Fior said to Callanach;
‘Your horse is still there! He can almost speak in the tongue of men, to say that he will wait for you to return. It is a good omen, it means you will come back....’
Liofa and Callanach looked round and saw Star still standing watching them. He seemed small and forlorn on the stony wasteland.
‘Perhaps so...’ thought Callanach to himself. ‘Or perhaps with the wisdom that animals possess he knows I will never come back, and he is bidding me farewell in his own way....’

Marfach looked at the sword that the Mouth of Sauron held out to him. Rage and revulsion rose up in him and he longed to take the foul black blade out of the hands of this the most hideous of all the servants of Sauron and break it in pieces with his bare hands.

But then he looked at the wounded Ranger, exhausted and with no hope of escape, and Marfach knew that he had to kill him, and he knew that he could not bear to do it with his own Elven sword. So in silence, not looking up at the Mouth of Sauron, not wanting to see his sneer of triumph, Marfach took the black sword and turning his back on its owner he walked over to the Ranger.

Even in Mordor the sun rises, and a brassy yellow light was slanting across the plain crowded with fell armies. Standing against it Marfach cast a shadow across the Ranger, who looked up at him.
‘Can you stand?’ he asked the man.
Seolta struggled to get up. Marfach took his arm and lifted him to his feet in one powerful heave. Then he said to him;
‘We will get away from this foul rabble. There is no need to give them any more entertainment....’

Supporting the wounded man with one hand and holding the black sword in the other, Marfach made his way out of earshot of the Mouth and his Easterling army. Then he let the Ranger down gently on the stony ground.
‘I know who you are’ he said to Seolta. ‘You are one of the Black Company. Why are you here? What persuaded you to enter Mordor? Surely you know it means your death!’

Seolta was half-lying, half sitting on the ground. He was nursing his broken arm and drawing fast, shallow breaths. He looked up at Marfach, who was startled to see the pupils of the man’s eyes were no longer blue but red, like his own.

‘I know who you are too, Marfach Killer of Men...’ Seolta replied in a low hoarse voice. ‘..and I know it is my death to be captured in Mordor. But death means nothing to me, for I have been poisoned by orcs, and do not have long to live....’
‘But why did you not stay with your own people?’ asked Marfach in dismay. He was thinking of Liofa and Callanach and how grieved they would be to lose their friend.
Seolta cut him off with a harsh laugh.
‘I did not come here just to die. I have a message for you....’

Marfach stepped back, staring at the Ranger.
Seolta had got to his feet. He was standing easily, not holding his arm any more or breathing in pain. His face had changed; it was calm and set, with a slight sneer on his lips. And his eyes glowed with a red fire.
‘What message?’ Marfach himself say.

The Ranger laughed, and the sound was deep and musical and almost joyful. Then he spoke, and Marfach wanted to put his hands over his ears. For he knew that voice; it was the voice of Sauron.

‘Marfach, Marfach!’ said the voice ‘Do you not know me? I regret I am forced to adopt this miserable disguise, but I did not want my loyal servant, The Steward of the Dark Tower, my own personal mouthpiece, to overhear what I have to say to you...’

And the Ranger jerked his arm in the direction of the Mouth, who was at that moment inspecting his Easterling bodyguard. Then he turned back to Marfach.
‘This Steward pretends to be loyal to me and to be no more than my Voice. But I have looked into the depths of his heart and I know that he desires power for himself. He is no better than Saruman, whom he replaces as my puppet. In the end, they all betray me...’

Marfach was listening with his eyes fixed on the ground, his mind in turmoil. Above everything he knew he must not let Sauron gain access to his thoughts. Then everything he knew about Frodo and the Ring would be known to Sauron.

The voice continued;
‘But you, my loyal Marfach, you have served me without fail for many ages, never seeking anything for yourself. Only when you were lured by the promises and lies of that miserable pretender Aragorn and his rabble did you betray me. But even then you saw your error and you came back! And now there is no-one that I would rather sooner raise to the highest power, yea even to sit at my side when I triumph on the field today and take up my rule over all Middle Earth. But come, Marfach, will you not raise your head and look at me?’

Marfach closed his eyes for a moment, then gathered all his strength and lifted his head and looked into the Ranger’s eyes.

At once a storm of fire and smoke seemed to invade his mind, and he was unable to see or hear anything. But the calm, wise voice now spoke from inside his head.
‘Marfach, nothing will be denied you. See the dominions over which you will rule!’

The darkness swirled and lightened; Marfach found himself standing on a tall black tower topped with high stone turrets. In its sides were set small windows barred with iron through which a dim red light glowed. Around the tower was an atmosphere of horror, but Marfach found himself gazing out from its summit in exhilaration, because from this high point he could see almost all of Middle Earth. To the far North snow capped mountains nipped the misty edge of the sky, and to the West another great jagged range of white peaks marched away to the sea.
‘All this can be yours to rule in my stead...’ said the voice. ‘..only yield up to me the secrets I know you carry.....’

Marfach felt dizzy, but then he looked down, and at the foot of the tower lay Mordor. Far away shone silver rivers and fertile valleys, but here at his feet everything was foul and dead.

In despair, Marfach looked up at the sky. It was covered with dark cloud, but a sudden swirl of wind tore a gap in the cloud and in that small space a single star appeared. Marfach gazed at it desperately. How small and cold and bright it looked!
‘And what of the Elven lands, where the stars were always bright?’ he thought to himself. As if in reply he heard another voice, and it was not the voice of Sauron but was soft and kind, barely audible like the music of a distant stream. It was the voice of Melian the Elf-Queen he had served so long before. She said to him;
‘Croga the stars shine still, even though they no longer shine on the realms of the Elves in Middle Earth. Our glory fades and our dominion is ceded to men...’

Marfach remembered the vision of the starlit city of Doriath that had sustained him through many dark ages. Now it was gone, and his heart seemed to have died with it. Then Melian spoke again;
‘Croga, a brutal fate decreed long ago that you fall into the power of Mordor. It has been your solace, but also your torment, that you remembered what you had once been. Through all you have done, all that you have been forced to do, you never forgot what you really were. I know the desire of your heart; to join your brothers beyond the Sea. Your wish will be granted...’
‘No...’ Marfach replied, remembering Boromir. ‘That cannot be. I gave my place to another...’
‘It has been restored to you’ said Melian. ‘Do not be afraid in the battle today; the stars that lit Doriath shine still, even though her glory is dead. Remember who you are...’

Marfach was awoken from his vision by an animal scream of rage and a raking blow across his face. He staggered backwards and almost fell. The Ranger shouted at him in a voice shrill with hatred and frustration;
‘Still you defy me, Marfach! Much did you learn from the rebel leaders of the West, but you tell me nothing of it!’
Marfach rubbed blood from his face with the back of his hand, but did not answer. The Ranger advanced on him, his red eyes blazing.
‘Vey well, let it be so. You could have been as a son to me, but now you will die as you have always lived; like a slave. I will make sure that you are set in the front of battle today, so that your former friends can see you and understand you have betrayed them too. Of the many that will die today, you will be the very first....’

Then the Ranger, his message delivered, seemed to crumple. The light went out of the red eyes and he slid back onto the ground, bowed his head and fell silent.

Marfach stood back, breathing hard and trying to see around him. The voices in his head were gone, and he heard only the angry shouts of the Easterlings. They were preparing to march, and were calling on him to hurry up and execute the Ranger.

Marfach looked down at the man and saw that his eyes were once again blue, like a Northern sky after rain. He said to him;
‘For what I am about to do, I crave your pardon’
Seolta gave Marfach a crooked smile and said;
‘I deserted the Black Company to hunt you down and kill you, Red Dragon. I gave in to hatred and this is what it has brought me to. There is a justice in it. You need no pardon from me....’
‘I see no justice here!’ retorted Marfach bitterly. Then he put a hand on the Ranger’s shoulder and said earnestly;
‘I would have your pardon!’

Seolta looked up at Marfach as if seeing him for the first time and said;
‘For what it is worth, you have it. You are not the enemy.’

The Ranger spoke no more to Marfach but turned his head away and looked North. Marfach took a firm grip on the handle of the curved black sword then raised it and brought it down in one long, swift stroke which made a faint whispering noise, like a scythe through summer grass. There was a ragged cheer from the Easterlings then Marfach took the sword and placing his foot on the bloodstained blade he bent it in two, pushing violently till the steel shattered with a ringing crack. He picked up the shards and threw them at the Easterlings, who dodged aside to avoid the pieces, not wishing to touch anything belonging to the Mouth of Sauron.

For a moment Marfach stood gazing down sadly at the body of the Ranger. He noticed a splash of blood on the front of his black armour and instinctively he tried to wipe it away. But a mark still remained, a wide dark stain on the steel plates. With a sigh, Marfach walked back to where the Mouth sat on his skeletal horse.
‘What a pity you broke my blade.’ he said to Marfach. ‘However, Lord Sauron has plenty of swords at his disposal’.
The Mouth leered triumphantly but when he saw the look of murderous intent in Marfach’s face his smile vanished. The red eyes had the fierce, unblinking appearance of a hawk watching its prey. The Mouth retreated and galloped back to the safety of his guards before shouting at Marfach;
‘Now we go to deal with the rebel army of the West. I am particularly instructed to place you in the front rank. Follow me, slave, and let no harm come to the tokens I entrusted to you!’

And wheeling his black horse the Mouth of Sauron led the army of Mordor out onto the road to the Black Gates. Marfach bent down and picked up the bundle containing Frodo’s mithril shirt and Sam’s sword and clasped them to his chest as if they were more precious than life itself. Then he walked over to his black steed and grasping the pommel he swung himself into the saddle in one swift movement and followed the Mouth with his head bowed and his eyes fixed on the ground.

On the other side of the Black Gates, Aragorn and his army found their way blocked by a great moat full of stinking water which overflowed on all sides into poisonous black pools. To the North and South however there rose up two low hills, and Aragorn guessed that the land all about was riddled with mines and caverns hewn by orcs who now hid there waiting to ambush the men of the West. The hills were the spoil from their digging. Aragorn ordered the army to take up defensive positions on these heights.

The Black Company scrambled up the steep slope of the Northernmost hill. When they reached the level ground on top the Elf Rosc walked over and stood before Callanach. He bowed and said;
‘Captain of the Black Company, I ask your pardon. The Ranger Seolta, whom we undertook to care for, has vanished.’
Callanach stared back at the Elf.
‘Vanished?’ he repeated dumbly. ‘What do you mean? He’s gone?’

Beside Callanach his lieutenant Crionna and Liofa stood looking equally astonished. Rosc’s fair, pale face was pale but impassive.
‘I apologise, sir. It is our fault and we ask your pardon. It seems he disappeared from the camp overnight.’

Callanach restrained himself from giving a sharp reply. Beside him Liofa was aware that his young friend was keeping back his anger and the Elf had to smile secretly, observing how much Callanach had grown from the headstrong boy he had been when they first met. Now Callanach would wait for the Elves to explain themselves and not judge them till he had heard all they had to say.
‘He is not the Storm I once knew’ thought Liofa with the sadness that Elves felt when they saw their friends among the race of men grow older while they themselves did not change.
‘Now, Callanach is a man and a leader of men. ....’

It was possible that Rosc sensed something of the same, for after a few moments’ hesitation his stern expression softened and he said to Callanach in a sorrowful, bemused voice;
‘We Elves do not need sleep, as you know. Yet even though we kept watch all night we did not see Seolta depart. It is our belief that he was shielded by some sorcery or shape-shifting. Only in that way could he have eluded our sentries.’
Callanach nodded thoughtfully then asked;
‘Seolta man was sick, almost to death. He could barely walk. How then could he escape? And why did he want to go, and to where?’
Rosc replied sadly;
‘Seolta was indeed close to death. We believe that is why he was easily overpowered and taken into Mordor’
‘Mordor!’ gasped Crionna and the other Rangers. The other Galadrhim had now come up and were standing around, and like their leader their faces were full of sadness. Rosc said;
‘We think Seolta was bewitched by the Enemy and sent into Mordor, on some evil errand that could only result in death. We are truly sorry, for he was once your leader and he led you safely to Helm’s Deep, you and many of the people of Rohan. For all his hatred of long speeches and ceremony he was brave and generous and of the noble blood of Arnor. We grieve with you, but you will never Seolta again...’

When the army had taken up position on the hills, Aragorn chose certain of the Captains to accompany him on a parlay with Mordor. He called forth Elrohir and Elladan, the sons of Elrond, and also Imrahil and Eomer. Then he said;
‘You, Gandalf, will come with us as chief herald of the army of the West. And you too must accompany us...’
Here Aragorn indicated Gimli, Legolas and Pippin ‘...we will show Mordor who stands against them; all the peoples of the West!’

Then Aragorn led the Captains towards the Gates of Mordor.

At one place there was a rocky causeway over the moat, wide enough for half a dozen horsemen to pass abreast and it was there the Captains halted, within earshot of Mordor. Their standard bearers unfurled their banners, first among them the Black Banner that Arwen had wrought and sent to Aragorn in the south, and the trumpeters blew a long shrill blast on their trumpets. The echoes rolled along the high jagged walls of the Morannon and boomed hollow on the iron faces of the Black Gates. But no answer came to this summons.

Again the trumpets rang, and the heralds of the army of the West shouted their challenges to the unyielding gates. They cried till they grew hoarse, but still no reply came.

‘We’re wasting our time...’ thought Pippin, peering around Eomer at the dark walls. ‘I wish we could just go back to the army, I feel horribly naked here, right in front of those Gates....’

Just as Pippin thought about the Gates, they opened. There was a sudden, deafening roll of orc drums and a crack and a shudder, and the great doors began to move apart. The Captains looked up and instinctively clutched at their weapons.
‘No arms!’ said Gandalf in a loud voice. ‘This is a parlay. Let us see what Mordor has to say...’

All eyes turned to the narrow crack between the opening Gates. Slowly, the two doors were moved back. A harsh, yellow light streamed through the gap, making it impossible to see what lay beyond. But as the Gates were edged wider, they could make out the figure of a horseman walking slowly towards them.

As the figure advanced the Captains struggled to see clearly. The light increased, and first Elrohir and Elladan, who as Elves had the best sight, grimaced and looked away in disgust. For the men, and even for Gandalf, it took longer to see what was coming towards them. When they at last made it out clearly, they gasped in horror, and their horses snorted and backed away.

At first the figure looked like a Ringwraith, for it was tall and skeletal and clothed all in black. It rode a tall black horse, likewise little more than bones and hide, its face a skull and its eyes burning red orbs beneath a chamfron of black steel.

But the figure on the horse’s back was no mere shadowy servant of the Ring. He was a real man, flesh and blood, even if vile and appalling. He was tall and commanding and clothed in dusty black. On his head he wore a high crown of silver and black steel, its tines lofty and sharp, and at his side he bore a long pale sword in a black sheath.

But the most unsettling thing about this figure was that its face was hidden; the black helm covered all except the mouth. This had lips that were black and cracked, and long yellow teeth like those of a beast. The mouth curled back in a sneering smile as the figure approached the Captains.

Gandalf said to Aragorn;
‘This is one of those called the Black Numenoreans. I thought perhaps they were legends, or that they had all perished, but now I see that one at least has survived, and has given himself into the service of Sauron. We must beware, for this is a human foe made dangerous beyond thought by the sorcery he has learned in Mordor....’

On the Northernmost hill, the Black Company also strained their eyes to see the emissary of Sauron. Even at a distance they could perceive the dead black accoutrements and the high black crowned helm that hid the being’s face. All eyes were on this dread figure, but Liofa, whose sight was keener than those of the Rangers around him, found himself casting his gaze over the guards that followed behind the Mouth of Sauron.

One of these attendants advanced some way ahead of the others, keeping close to the Mouth. Liofa stared at this figure, and his heart seemed to turn over in his chest.
‘Callanach!’ he gasped, clutching his friend’s arm. ‘Look there! It’s Marfach!'