The Dragon and the Fox

by Varda

Chapter 102:  Edge of Darkness

As the early rain cleared to a bright morning the Black Company and their friends gathered in the front square of Minas Tirith. The spring sunshine lit up the smoke-stained statue of Isildur that dominated the Square and all around workmen were busy repairing the damage done when the orcs burst through the city’s defences with their massive ram Grond. The great gates were being repaired and the air was full of the sound of hammering and sawing. It was a merry bustle which gave joy to the hearts of the townsfolk.

Despite this renewal of Minas Tirith a small number of the Black Company found no peace in the city and yearned for their Northern homeland, Arnor. And so the giant Ranger Teagar, Fior the youngest of the Company and the Ranger once known as An Bruadair but now renamed Ardu, had obtained leave from the King to return to their home in the North. There amid the still meres, lonely peaks and gorse-clad uplands would their hearts ever dwell and King Elessar was sending them back to rebuild the Northern Kingdom of Arnor.

The King had appointed Teagar to be governor of the new realm and Ardu to be his scribe. Their saddle bags bulged with rolls of parchment and bundles of quills to set in order the governing of the reborn kingdom. The Rangers were glad to be returning to their beloved homeland but equally determined not to disappoint their king in the execution of their new duties.

Rosc and those of the Black Company who were staying in the city bade the small group farewell. Fior looked them over and said;
‘Where is Crionna? I thought he would be here to see us off...’
Everyone looked uncertainly at each other. At last Ardu said;
‘I think he had business in the city early today...’
‘He said nothing of it last night’ pondered Teagar. Ardu smiled mysteriously and replied;
‘That was because he did not know about it last night...’

An awkward silence fell on the Company; they all knew that Ardu had once been called The Dreamer and although he no longer dreamed of the future still he had the power to see things invisible to others. They had changed his name to Ardu, meaning one who has risen again after a fall. But they could not change what he was. Seeing Ardu’s pinched, sallow face go red with embarrassment. The Elf Rosc hastily moved to break the silence;
‘I am sure he has good reason’ he said cheerfully. ‘...and wishes you well on your journey! Now we will say farewell, brothers and comrades, and may you reach your Northern homeland quickly and safely, and restore Arnor to what she once was!’

The small group of Rangers were mounted on swift steeds of Rohan, the very same that they had stolen from the Rohirrim camp so long ago. King Eomer had given them the horses to keep as a sign of peace between Rohan and the renewed kingdom of Arnor. Now those horses bore the Rangers quickly across the Pelennor fields, where green shoots of new grass were already sprouting up in the blackened ground where the great battle had raged.

They crossed the river at Osgiliath over a makeshift pontoon bridge the building of which had been overseen by Gimli, then turned North towards the river garrison of Cair Andros. On the road they met many people making their way home to their villages and saw others working in the fields or labouring to rebuild their homes. Everyone smiled and waved at the travellers and Teagar thought to himself how completely the land had been transformed by the return of the king.
‘At least, for all our trials...’ he sighed ‘..we played our part in that.’

The fortress of Cair Andros on its island had been overrun by orcs late in the war, just before the battle of the Pelennor. The castle was ruined and offered no shelter, so the Rangers made camp beside the river, where a wide bend formed a quiet pool edged with whispering reeds.

The evening sun cast shadows on the blackened walls of the fortress and dragonflies skimmed the dark water. Ardu walked to the edge of the still pool and stood gazing into its depths. From time to time there was the glint of a fish as it rose to feed. Ardu found himself falling into a reverie. Once, it had been predicted that if he dreamed again, he would not wake up. But the ending of the war had taken that peril away and he dreamed no more. And yet this night he sensed something waiting just beyond the border of his waking mind, like a dim shape at the very edge of darkness.

Suddenly he started; a large hand had descended on his shoulder. Ardu turned quickly to find the giant Ranger Teagar standing over him.
‘We will take no chances...’ Teagar said. ‘..we will post guards tonight. You get some rest and I will take the first watch....’

Ardu wanted to protest; he was aware that the others felt he was still not strong enough to fulfil all his duties and wished to spare him. But he merely sighed and nodded his assent. They lit a fire and ate their meagre evening meal, then Ardu wrapped his green Ranger's cloak around him against the damp chill of the river meadow and lay down. Certain that he would not dream he was not afraid to let sleep take him.

Almost at once, he started to dream. He found himself standing on a cold, bleak hillside, between a forest of black pine trees and a steep, stony mountainside. Far below he saw the lights of a city, but what city it was he had no idea. Overhead a moon like a sick swollen face shed a poisonous yellow light on the barren landscape.
‘I am in a dream!’ he thought to himself with horror. ‘This should not be! I am lost.....’

Just then, Ardu became aware that he was not alone. Twenty paces or less from him a tall, cloaked figure stood with its back to the Ranger.

Ardu stared at the figure with apprehension. There was something menacing about its shape, tall and broad and shrouded in a black cloak that was ragged and stained with mud and dust. Fearful yet knowing that he encountered this being for a reason, Ardu spoke.
‘Who are you, and why have you brought me here?’

At first he thought the figure had not heard him, because it did make any response. But then it turned, very slowly, and directed its hooded gaze at the Ranger. A thrill of fear clenched his heart.
‘Who are you?’ he said again.
Marfach threw back his hood and stared at Ardu with his red glowing eyes.
‘I am one of the dead’ he replied in a cold voice. ‘And if you are here then you too are dead.’

Even in dream Ardu felt his throat go dry with fear. He stared at the being in front of him, aware of something tugging at his memory. He knew this creature....
‘This is not the land of the dead..’ he replied with a conviction he did not feel. ‘It is a dream, and you are not real....’

Marfach gave a bitter laugh.
‘Ranger...’ he said ‘I am all too real, and this is the land where the dead dwell, or those of Elf-kind who have been slain. For why else would I be here, having died to the world of mortal men?’

Ardu, remembering at last, cried;
‘I know who you are! You are Marfach, known once as Croga. You are not dead! You were wounded at the Last Battle and you have been taken to Rivendell to seek healing. I know this, for the Ranger Callanach and the Elf Liofa brought you there, and they are my friends as well as yours. Croga, I do not know why you are here, but you are not dead!’

Marfach stared at Ardu and the red glow in his eyes seemed to come and go. At last it vanished and his eyes were as grey as those of the Elves. He said uncertainly;
‘After the battle the Lady Melian led me here and told me to seek the world of men. But a black cloud of doubt settled on my heart and I was convinced that all was over and I had died on the battlefield...’
‘That was some evil thought sent by your former master Sauron!’ cried Ardu. ‘Marfach while you wander here, someone or something has taken your bodily form in order to enter Rivendell!’
Marfach, the truth dawning at last, said grimly;
‘It can only be Sauron, the deceiver.....’

The creature that had been Marfach advanced on Elrond with its red eyes glowing in the dark. The Elven prince instinctively took a step backwards and like an evil shadow in the moonlight, Marfach moved quickly to take up position between Elrond and the door, blocking his retreat.

Marfach had undergone a startling transformation. When he entered the gates of Rivendell only a few hours before he had been a hunched, dazed creature. Now, drawing himself up to his full height, he was as tall and formidable as when he had been the greatest Elf of the Company of Melian. The long red hair flowing down over his broad shoulders was no longer shot with silver and his bearing was proud and dangerous. The red eyes glowed like fire and he towered over even the tall Elf-lord. Elrond realised with dismay that all the power Sauron still retained had been poured into this creature so that it could live, move and work whatever evil The Dark Lord desired.

Then Marfach spoke in a deep voice that cast a chill more profound than the icy waterfall thundering past outside the window.
‘It has been a long time since we last met, Elrond Half Elven! I pay homage to your cunning survival. You made sure to outlive your master, Gil-Galad, and take what was rightfully his.’

Elrond appeared unmoved by Sauron’s taunt, but under his calm demeanour he was desperately trying to think of a way out of this peril. For the Elf Lord knew that if he did not stop this new incarnation of Sauron here and now, before he could escape out into Middle Earth, all that they had fought for in the great war of the Ring would be lost and darkness would return to the world...

‘You have passed from great wisdom to great folly, Sauron...’ he said at last.
‘With the destruction of the Great Ring, into which you poured all your malice and power, your dominion was broken in Middle Earth. Now you are no more than an evil ghost. If you were to take shape anywhere you would invite your own destruction. But to dare to come here, to Rivendell, is merely to ensure that destruction will be final....’

A roar of laughter interrupted Elrond’s words. Marfach bowed low.
‘Lord of Rivendell, I salute your bravado!’ he cried. ‘To threaten one who is still so much more powerful than you takes courage...’
Then the smile vanished and Marfach’s face became terrible as Sauron revealed himself in his wrath.
‘It also takes insolence, such insolence as you ever possessed, half breed! You always were a trickster, Elrond. But the time for games is over. You know well enough why I am here; you must have been waiting for me. I have come to claim the great ring of power that you still possess, Vilya, the Ring of Sapphire. It is the greatest of the three Elven rings and it was made by me and it belongs to me. Two others there are, but Nenya the Ring of Adamant is concealed in Lorien and that traitorous sorcerer Gandalf guards Narya the Ring of Fire.
So now, Half-Elf, give me back the Ring of Sapphire!’

On Elrond’s finger Vilya, the ring given to him by Gil-galad, began to grow warm. Soon it was hot, uncomfortable to the touch. And then it started to burn....

Elrond bit his lip, but resisted the temptation to tear the ring from his finger. Instead he said;
‘You are mistaken, Sauron. This ring is not yours. It was forged by the Noldorin of Eregion. It belongs to the Elves and always has....’
‘It is mine, half-breed!’ roared Sauron in reply. ‘The Elves made it but I gave them the power to endow it. I made all the rings, and then I made the One to rule them all....’
‘This Ring has never been subject to the Great Ring...’ objected Elrond.

Sauron replied in a voice that was calm, almost icy.
‘You are right, Lord Elrond. The rings of the Elves were never obedient to my Great Ring. And yet for all that they were made by me and are mine. All that they built was created by the power I bestowed on them. Now, give me back what is mine!’

Elrond’s heart sank like a stone in a deep pool. For he recognised that there was a truth in what Sauron said, like a black speck on a white shroud. The Elven smiths had indeed been assisted by Sauron, although then he had not been known as the evil he later became. Suddenly the bright fountains and green glades of Rivendell seemed to Elrond to fall into shadow, and his heart grew sick.

But he took a deep breath, raised his head and looked into Sauron’s eyes. On his finger the ring was now burning into his flesh almost to the bone, but he shut out the pain. He said;

‘You too are right, Sauron. The rings were indeed made by you and their power was once yours. But you gifted them to the Elves, as you gifted rings to the other races, Men and Dwarves. A gift freely accepted carries no shame, even if darkness lurks in the heart of the one who gives it. We have used the power of these rings only for good, and they have never been stained with war or dishonour. Even though its power is waning, you ask for Vilya in vain. Now leave Rivendell, before you are destroyed utterly!’

Elrond fell silent, and there was no sound in the chamber except for that of the waterfall. Marfach threw back the folds of his black cloak. Underneath he bore a sword, although how he had managed to carry it inside the house of Rivendell without alerting the Elves Elrond had no idea. With a long metallic rasp Marfach drew the sword from its sheath.

‘If you will not give me the ring, I will cut it from your hand, even as Isildur once cut the Great Ring from my own hand...’