The Dragon and the Fox

by Varda

Chapter 94: The Chalice of Blood

Aragorn dismissed Callanach and Teagar and watched them walk back quickly to the Black Company. Then he turned to Legolas and Gimli and said with a wry smile;
‘Well, if we are to be the bait in the trap for Sauron we might as well practise by being the bait for these orcs and Haradrim...’

Gimli snorted and fingered the handle of his axe.
‘Rather will they be the bait for my axe!’ he muttered.
‘Leave a few orcs for someone else, master Dwarf!’ Aragorn replied with a shake of his head, but in his heart he wondered if even this simple order could be carried out by the Black Company without disaster; everything they did seemed to go awry.

Word of the attack spread quickly and the Black Company made ready and mounted their horses with the subdued eagerness mingled with anxiety that precedes a battle. The Elves were as calm and inscrutable as ever, already mounted and waiting, their horses not burdened with saddle or bridle because the Elves were accustomed to ride without either.

Callanach formed the Black Company into two lines and took his place in front of them as captain. The horses’ breaths steamed in the morning air, for it was still only March and the night had been frosty.

As they watched, Aragorn the king led the army past with Eomer and Imrahil and the other captains at its head. Above them flew the banners of the Free Peoples of the West; the white horse on a green field that signified Rohan, the white tree and seven stars in a deep blue sky that denoted Gondor and the long floating swan pennant of Dol Amroth.

The flags brought a welcome splash of colour to a chilly grey morning and raised the spirits of the army. Aragorn nodded in acknowledgment of Callanach’s salute, then led his force down the bleached, dusty road towards the East. The army seemed pitifully small, made weaker by the departure of the men of the South. It passed the Black Company and was quickly hidden by trees and the steep sides of the cliffs that flanked the road.

Despite the reassurance of Teagar’s giant presence at his side, Callanach felt alone and uncertain when the army disappeared. He had never led a company into battle and was keenly aware of his inexperience; when he received his training from Haldir in Lorien it had not included the ordering of large battles. Watching the seasoned warriors of Gondor and Rohan, Callanach wondered would he be equal to this task, and even if he would live through the day at all.

Glancing up at the morning sky, already overcast by the smog from the East, Callanach thought of Marfach, and wondered with a shiver if he had yet entered Mordor. Unanswered questions like angry flies buzzed around his head and he sighed.
‘What’s the matter?’ whispered Teagar at his side.
‘Nothing!’ replied Callanach. ‘I was just wondering….’ he was going to mention Liofa but Teagar cut him off.
‘Well stop wondering! You are a captain now, in charge of a King’s Company. The safety of the army is in your hands. Attend to the moment!’

In the rank behind Callanach and Teagar another young Ranger was having trouble attending to the moment.

Fíor sat uncomfortably on a rangy grey that kept shaking its head and tugging at the reins, aware that its rider was no horseman. As the princes passed in front of him, the young Ranger glanced nervously at the man at his side, An Bruadar. Fíor had been given the task of watching over the Ranger who was gifted with the power of foresight.

So far, looking after The Dreamer had not given the lad any problems. The seër-Ranger, apart from being a silent and unresponsive companion, had as yet done nothing to pose a danger to himself or to others. That morning he had risen early despite the fact that he had not slept during the night for fear of visions, and he had prepared for battle unaided. But there was a distant look in his eyes and a sense that he might at any moment do something unexpected and even dangerous. Fíor could not feel at ease in charge of him.

And Fíor had other things on his mind too; like all the Black Company he had heard of Dearfa the Elf’s desertion of the Ranger Seolta. Fíor had seen Dearfa fighting at Helm’s Deep, singlehandedly keeping a host of orcs at bay. In Fior’s mind Dearfa was the greatest warrior in all Middle Earth and the Elf’s defection was a terrible blow to him. He had lost his hero. The world today seemed somehow tarnished and the morning less bright to the young Ranger.

In front of the Black Company, Callanach sat on his glossy black Haradrim pony, Star. He wore the gilded lamellar armour given to him by Queen Galadriel and although he had grown taller since then still the Elven armour fitted him perfectly, moving with his movements and cleaving to his body like a second skin. His long dark hair was tied back with a piece of red silk, the lock of white plain amongst the black, a reminder that Callanach had descended into the Anduin and to all human eyes was drowned.

Fíor watched wistfully as Callanach saluted Aragorn. They were the same age, although Fíor was the son of a lesser house of Arnor than Cal. Now envy crept into Fíor‘s heart as he saw Callanach giving orders to warriors older and more experienced than he was. A voice spoke at his side;
‘Don’t listen to him.’

Fíor turned to look at An Bruadar.
‘Who?’ he asked. ‘….what are you talking about?’
‘It is Sauron,’ replied An Bruadar. ‘We are nearing his realm and he is seeking to enter our minds and turn them to evil. Do not yield to jealousy, for Callanach or anyone else. Of all men on earth Callanach is not to be envied. He passed the gates of death and does not live an ordinary life but one borrowed from death by Lady Galadriel, using the power of Nenya, the Ring of Adamant. At any time, should she fall to Sauron or put away her Ring, Callanach will have to give back what was ransomed from death...’.

Callanach gave orders to break ranks and file back into the forest. As he did so the leader of the Elves of the Black Company, Rosc, rode up beside him accompanied by his second in command, Eitil. Rosc bowed and said to Callanach;
‘Captain, wise as your Rangers are in woodcraft none can move as quietly in the forest as the Elves. Permit us therefore to scout ahead, find the enemy positions and surround them. They will not hear us approach, and we can fall on them with complete surprise..’

Callanach heard Teagar cough discreetly beside him, and he understood that his lieutenant thought this was an excellent idea to which he should agree.

Rosc went on hastily;
‘ can, of course join us in the attack when we give you the signal..’

Callanach smiled to himself; Rosc was afraid it might appear that the Rangers were leaving all the fighting to the Elves. Callanach looked at the Lorien Elf, seeming even taller than usual on horseback, clad in armour that glinted a pearly silver in the sunlight, but turned dark grey in the shade, like water underneath great trees. Rosc had a respectful smile on his face, but his grey eyes, bright and piercing, gave away none of the secrets of his thoughts and the pale, proud face of his lieutenant Eitil was just as unreadable.

Callanach bowed and said;
‘My lord Rosc, the Elves are masters in forest warfare. Therefore do as you say and when you deem the time right give a signal for us to attack...’

Rosc bowed, and as he turned his horse away Callanach saw the Ranger Seolta among the Elves. The man looked straight ahead of him with a grey face, gripping the reins as if he was holding onto life itself. Before Callanach could speak to him the Elves had melted away into the forest of birch and alder, like mist on a summer morning. Callanach saw the Ranger no more.

Below in the valley the roadway looked like a white ribbon through the parched spring grass. From behind a tall thicket of willow and alder there came the bright banners of the army, moving steadily forward. Hidden in the high growth of whin at the top of the steep valley, Callanach tightened his grip on his sword hilt impatiently.
‘Where are the Elves?’ he said to himself.
‘Steady!’ whispered Teager as if he had heard his thought. ‘No man can see an Elf if he wishes to be hidden!’
‘Let us go forward a bit’ Callanach said impatiently. ‘We must be close enough to attack at the signal...’

As yet, they had not seen a single enemy. The Haradrim and orcs had concealed themselves so well that not so much as a spear or an arrow fletch was visible to the men on the hill above. But Callanach knew nothing could escape the eyes of the Elves.

Teagar gave a signal and the men, almost invisible in the thick bushes, inched their mounts forward. Quiet as they were, they seemed to make a sound like thunder.
‘We’re making more noise than a herd of Oliphaunts!’ said Callanach.
‘Let us leave the horses behind!’ Teagar nodded and Callanach gripped the pommel of his saddle to dismount.

But in that heartbeat of time between his horse taking its last step and coming to a halt, a figure sprang up from under its hooves with a fierce yell of fear and anger. As Star shied violently away Callanach caught a glimpse of a small, squat orc clad in rusty iron armour and ragged chain mail, and wearing a short cloak of hide and fur. It raised its broad leathery face to snarl at Cal, baring long yellow fangs like a wolf, and whipped out a black, curved scimitar to attack him. But then the creature caught sight of the mounted men behind Callanach and realised it was surrounded. In panic, the orc turned and fled down the hill towards where the Elves were hidden in the trees.

Paralysed by surprise and dismay, Callanach sat motionless in the saddle. The orc must have been posted on the heights as a lookout, but the wretch had fallen asleep and was so well hidden that even the Elves had passed him by. Their keen sense of evil had no doubt dismissed his smell as that coming from the orcs hidden a little distance below in the trees.

But now the creature was flying down the hill to alert his comrades and the Elves would be revealed and laid open to the enemy’s archers. The fleeing orc startled a flock of crows in the bushes and they whirled up into the sky, crying harshly. Down on the road, Callanach saw the king raise his head at the sound and look up....

Callanach had to stop the orc. There was no time to send anyone else, he dug his heels into Star’s sides and the little black horse, quicker than any battle charger, sprang forward down the narrow track after the orc. The pony twisted and turned nimbly as a mountain goat almost as if it understood the need for haste, while Callanach clung to its mane and struggled to draw his sword.

Surely, he thought, the enemy must hear them? But the flock of birds, which Callanach had thought would alert the foe, were circling the valley with loud cries, covering the sound of Star’s hooves. The enemy must think the birds were startled by the army on the road. Knowing he had only a few seconds to catch the orc, Callanach hit Star’s flank with the end of the reins.

The little horse, long used to harsh treatment from its Haradrim masters, had until this moment known none from the hand of Callanach, and now it laid its ears back and stretched out its head and strained to catch their quarry as ducked and swerved on the track ahead. Foam dappled the horse’s glossy black coat, and its eyes started wildly in its head. The orc was barely a spear’s length ahead of them...

But flying blindly, the creature had run down a narrow, stony path that came to an abrupt end at a great standing stone. Neither the orc nor Callanach knew or cared at that moment, but this stone, called the Watching Stone in ancient times, was in fact the last remaining pillar of six carved supports of a watchtower built to overlook the road to the East by the Kings of Gondor, at a time when there still were kings in Gondor. Orcs had long ago torn down the tower, but this solitary, elegant pillar had defied their attempts to destroy it and still stood overlooking the valley, even though its white stone surface was chipped and defaced with orcish slogans and filth.

But the path that led to the Watching Stone led no-where else, and now the orc ran right to the base of the pillar and turned at bay, its eyes glaring red like fire, its mouth open as it panted for breath. Almost on its heels, Callanach rode up on Star.
The orc, knowing it was cornered, bared its fangs and gave a sound between a hiss and a scream. Then it raised its black scimitar and thrust it at Star’s chest.

The young Ranger had not expected his quarry to turn so abruptly. In the half-second as the brute attacked Callanach cursed himself; ‘Always expect that which should not happen..’ Haldir had warned him when they had trained together.
‘and never underestimate your enemy; even orcs can fight like champions, if they are cornered...’

Callanach saw the flash of black steel as the orc lunged forward and thought it was too late to avert the stroke. The scimitar was aimed at Star’s heart and instinctively Callanach hauled on the reins to deflect the horse’s head. The check made Star stumble and Callanach was thrown forward out of the saddle. He saw the rusty tip of the sharp sword rush towards him....

The water closed over his head, and looking up Callanach saw daylight like a shimmering circle of silver, slowly breaking up and growing darker and darker as he plunged deeper into the swift-flowing Anduin. He held his breath till he could hold it no longer, then his lungs filled with icy water and he began to choke. He let go his sword, but his belt and clothes dragged him inexorably down, into the depths where blue became a deep, shadowed green then black; down, down, into nothingness and death.

Inside Mordor the road, tramped smooth by thousands of orcs and Easterlings and Haradrim passing through the Black Gates, ran a zig-zag path between high escarpments, always under the gaze of lookouts posted on every cliff and hill.

At one spot the path twisted between two pinnacles of black stone, and through the gap there suddenly shone a dazzling yellow light, intense and blinding, piercing Marfach’s sight till he felt his eyes almost burned in their sockets. It was the Great Eye, and as the light swept on it turned to a smoky red, but Marfach was already blinded by its beam, and unable to see the ground at his feet he missed his step and fell in front of the company of Uruk-hai.

The Uruks exploded into raucous, mocking laughter. Advancing on Marfach before he could regain his feet they kicked and pushed him. But Uafas brandished his whip and snarled at them.
‘Back, you scum! This Elf rat is our passport to an easy life. Or rather, life with a head, which is not what we’ll have if The Eye finds us back in Mordor against orders. He is our excuse for leaving our post and coming back, so don’t spoil the prize and make our homecoming a sticky one. For us, that is!’

Despite himself, Marfach was glad of the reprieve. His sight returned gradually, a pain like a dagger remaining deep in his head and fading only slowly. Warily he watched the bare hills around him, careful that the beam of the Eye should not catch him unawares again. It passed in a long red swathe over the burnt and blasted landscape of Mordor, where no plants grew any more and only the splintered stumps of trees stood like crippled hands stretched towards the blank sky. In a very short time, the beam of The Eye had again rolled round to where the orc troop marched sullenly forward.

This time Marfach looked away when the beam swept over them. He felt the red light hot on his averted face, and his neck and the back of his hand burned as if from too long exposure to a desert sun. Then, to his horror, the blood coloured column wavered and stopped, then slowly, inexorably, it crept back to the band of orcs, and rested on Marfach.

Uafas threw up a hand and the orcs shuffled to a halt, snorting and grumbling. Their leader gazed at Marfach, standing bathed in a pool of bloody light, and fear sprang into his heart. The other orcs too scrambled backwards hastily. Marfach closed his eyes tightly, and clenched his fist. There was a blinding flash and a tremor through the earth. Marfach was flung forward onto the ground, and lay there for a moment, stunned. His head ached unbearably, and he kept his eyes closed tightly....

After a few minutes, Marfach noticed a change in the bitter, smoky air around him. A breeze played on his face that was cool and scented with cedars. He opened his eyes and got slowly to his feet, looking about him in wonder.

He was standing on the cool marble floor of a long airy gallery lined with columns. Along one side of the room ran a balcony that overlooked misty mountains, ridge after purple ridge stretching away to the horizon. Hangings of pale silvery blue and yellow, in a material so fine that the landscape beyond could be seen through it, billowed in a breeze that smelt of cedars. Marfach was drawn to the balcony, where he stood bathed in warm spring sunlight and looked down on a valley clad with trees of fresh green. Opposite the palace, the steep sides of the mountains rose to snow covered peaks where eagles soared on the pure air.

‘Croga!’ said a voice behind Marfach. He turned, and saw a tall, blue-clad figure with a silver diadem on his head walking towards him down the long high room. He had the appearance of an Elf-lord, fair and of regal bearing, with a high, pale forehead, long black hair and eyes of dark blue, set deep under arched brows. The Elf held out a long, graceful hand to Marfach, then embraced him. Tall as Marfach was, the Elf-lord was taller.
‘Welcome, welcome!’ said the Elf, disengaging himself and stepping back. ‘Long have I wished to see you again, Croga the brave. Long have I waited for your return. Please, walk with me and tell me of all that has befallen you since you left my halls.’

Marfach gazed at the Elf curiously; he knew the voice, but did not recognise the Elf’s face.
‘Who am I, you are wondering!’ he said with a laugh like silver. Then he turned his deep-set blue eyes to Marfach and said;
‘I am Eirleach..’

A roaring filled Marfach’s head and he did not hear the rest of the sentence; Eirleach, which meant destruction or slaughter, was one of the names by which Sauron had been known when Marfach lived as an Elf.

Marfach roused himself from his shock; the voice had stopped and Eirleach was staring at him with a strange smile on his fair face.
‘Come, Croga!’ he said in a deep, melodious voice. ‘Taste my hospitality....’

Eirleach turned and walked down the high, airy room to a long table at the end, Marfach forcing himself to fall into step beside him. Through the tall windows the sunlight fell like long clear swatches of honey coloured silk, and when they reached the marble table Marfach saw it bore great amethyst bowls filled with every kind of food, and silver chalices piled with snow over which dark, fragrant wine had been poured. Beyond the table stood a tall marble font on which was set a great shining silver basin.

At once Marfach realised that he was starving with hunger but even more than that, parched with thirst; his throat was dry and hot, and his tongue swollen in his mouth. More than anything else in his life before he longed to seize the chalice and gulp down the dark, ice cold wine. But he forced himself to reply to the Elf-lord.

‘I do not know where to start…’ he stammered. ‘So long has it been since I tasted the food of your halls, and slept under your roof. Only this I can say, I have tried to do your will at all times…’
Eirleach smiled, and gestured to the table.
‘I forget my hospitality! Will you not take some food and drink before we talk?’

Eirleach turned his face to Marfach and smiled upon him and Marfach in that moment knew that even if he was dying of hunger and thirst he must not drink or eat from this table.
‘My lord...’ Marfach mumbled through dry lips. ‘I will eat when I have answered your questions. I await your will.....’

A strange look flashed across Eirleach’s face. He spoke, and the voice was not smooth any more, but harsh.
‘My will….?’ He said; ‘…tell me now, my loyal Croga, exactly how have you done my will…?’

The tall figure put a hand on Marfach’s arm and tightened it to a vice-like grip. He turned his face to Marfach, who saw that it was no longer fair but livid white and gaunt, and the light in the eyes was a wasting flame. Marfach looked down at the hand grasping his arm, and saw a claw.

Then Eirleach laughed, a cold mocking laugh that echoed around Marfach’s own head. Louder and louder it became until Marfach longed to clamp his hand over his ear in an attempt to shut it out. Abruptly, it stopped. Then came a different voice, soft and cold;

‘Well, Marfach the great captain of Mordor, long lost, you return to us at last. And you come at the head of ….of what? Surely not a victorious army? No, a band of mutinous orcs who found you running away and have brought you back to face the wrath of your betrayed master!’

Eirleach’s voice grew louder again till the last words were uttered so loudly that Marfach thought his skull would burst apart. Then the tall figure stepped in front of Marfach and looked into his eyes.

And what Marfach saw was not the gaze of Eirleach but the great red Eye itself. It fastened on Marfach and sent forth all its power of discovery. Searching, probing, scanning every thought, feeling and every image that was held in his memory. Once, Sauron had scoured other minds in this way, almost destroying them; Pippin had been saved from certain madness by Gandalf, Aragorn had barely been strong enough to repel the Eye himself. Now, as Uafas had said he would, Marfach felt his brain shrivel in the glare of the Eye as if it was a carcase in the sun. A power greater than anything he had ever known sought to spill out his thoughts like an axe spills out a man’s brains.

This was what Marfach had feared, that his mind would be torn apart and read like a open book, and everything he knew, about Frodo and the Ring and the plan of Aragorn to distract Sauron, would be laid bare, with disastrous results. Gritting his teeth, Marfach determined that would not happen. Taking a great risk, he thought about Frodo, his courage and his steadfast loyalty to his word; but he did not think about the Ring he bore. At once, the piercing pain behind Marfach’s eyes lessened slightly. A cool silence flooded his mind. For a moment, at least, the Eye was held at bay.

Grasping his respite, Marfach at once concentrated on Aragorn; he thought of him tall and stern, just as Sauron himself would have seen him when they came face to face in the Palantir. Then Marfach dressed the last king of the West with all the ancient livery of Gondor, sure to fall on Sauron’s sight like a hot iron on bare flesh; the sword Anduril, forged from Narsil, the blade that had cut the ring from Sauron’s own hand.

Marfach put forth these visions, with as much energy as he concealed the others, and he felt Sauron quail before the image of Anduril that he formed in his mind. And then Marfach imagined the impossible; the Ring, the Great Ring, the imperishable, the indestructible, essence of Sauron’s own very being, held aloft, worn on Aragorn’s hand, guiding the King of Gondor to victory at the head of a great army.

By now the claw was sinking into the flesh of Marfach’s arm almost to the bone. The Eye bore into his, devouring the terrible vision. Then Sauron screamed;
‘Tell me all!’

‘The one they call Aragorn, Strider, the king that will be….’ stammered Marfach, and at these words the hand gripping his arm abruptly released him, and the creature retreated with a gasp, as if he had been struck in the face. Gaining courage, Marfach went on;
‘The one called Aragorn has come by what you seek, the Precious, the Ruler of Nine, The One. He wears it on a chain round his neck. With it he has put aside the Steward and his sons and now he rules Gondor and seeks to overthrow Mordor, and set himself up as lord of all the earth!’

At these words Eirleach gave a great cry, a scream like some terrible bird of prey, and Marfach turned and instead of a tall fair Elf he saw a bent wizened form, with a face from which the flesh was rotted away and empty eye sockets. But in those sockets there still burned a fell light.
‘Away….away….I will hear no more…..’

Marfach stood swaying slightly on the cool marble floor and realised that he had done what he had come to do; he had shown Sauron a vision of Aragorn wearing the Ring, bringing war against Mordor. Relief like a sweet cool scent rushed over him and he felt a great peace. He looked down at the white marble, veined with grey, and smiled.

But after some moments, Marfach roused himself and looked around for Eirleach. To his surprise, the figure was no longer turned away, but standing once again tall and commanding, gazing straight at Marfach with his piercing blue eyes. Marfach felt himself once again held by that gaze, and he tried to look away, but found himself imprisoned. Eirleach’s voice came soft and smooth once again, like velvet;

‘Such dreadful visions you have brought me, Marfach, and yet how can I not trust you, who have always been my faithful servant? It is true that you rode with men and Elves against my armies and spared the warriors of Rohan and Gondor at the Battle of the Pelennor. And that you have befriended men and Elves. Yet you are my true and faithful servant, so why should I doubt you?’

A chill had fallen on Marfach’s heart. The tall figure’s hand took his arm once again. Eirleach gave a laugh like a death rattle.
‘Such visions deserve a reward. And what better reward than other, better visions?

Do you wish to see what your friends are doing?’

Dread fell on Marfach. He did not resist as the figure led him past the long table, the great crystal bowls of luscious fruit and silver chalices of purple wine, up to the font with the silver basin. Here he released Marfach’s arm and gestured at the water.
‘Please, take a look....’

It was as if his will had been overruled by some greater force; Marfach looked down at the surface of the water in the silver basin.

At first he could not see anything at all. The water was dark, not even reflecting the light streaming into the high, airy room. But gradually as Marfach looked he began to see shapes in the depths of the water, like clouds, swirling slowly until at last they parted to show a scene somehow clear as a dream is often clear although seen with the sleeping eye.

Marfach leaned over and held the side of the silver basin with his hand, gazing intently into the water. He frowned and concentrated; he knew the place that he saw in the basin; it was a narrow valley through which wound a white road. High above the road stood a tall stone...
‘The Watching Stone!’ thought Marfach, remembering the old watchtower overlooking the road through Ithilien. Then his face became dark, for down the path that led to the stone there fled an orc, a small squat figure running for its life. And behind it came a small black pony that Marfach would have known in any dream; it was Star, and riding him was Callanach.

‘Storm!’ said Marfach out loud before he could stop himself. But by now he had forgotten the presence of Eirleach at his side. He bent close to the basin, staring hard as the scene unfolded in the depths of the water. His breath caught in his throat, Marfach saw the orc stop at the stone, cornered, and draw it sword. He saw as if in some strange silent play the horse stumble and swerve, and Callanach fall from the saddle. He saw the orc thrust the blade into his friend’s chest....

‘No!’ shouted Marfach, throwing himself backwards from the basin. All too often he had seen men die in battle; all too often he had dealt death himself. But now he could not bear to see Callanach die. ‘ No!’ he shouted again, this time in tears.

There came a soft laugh from the tall figure at his side. Marfach looked at Eirleach with rage and hatred.
‘Why do you show me this?’he snarled.

The laugh stopped at once. As if a veil had fallen from Marfach’s eyes he saw at last a hunched, grey-faced figure, tall still but clad not in shimmering Elven robes but in dusty black gravecloths. The face under its hood was grey and yellow, like that of a corpse, and no eyes could be seen in the deep sockets, only two burning red points of light.
‘Why do I show you this?’ the voice repeated, and it was dry and rustling, like dead leaves.
‘Because am offering you the chance to avert what you see is happening..’
Marfach stared at the figure.
‘You are lying!’ he shouted. ‘You have no power to order the events of the world, all you offer is illusion!’
Eirleach smiled, his yellow features forming a ghastly mask.
‘Perhaps you are right, Croga. But do you wish to wager the life of your friend on that chance?’

Marfach stared at the wasted features for a long time. At last he dropped his gaze.
‘No..’ he said in a small voice. ‘I wish to avert what I have seen, if it can be done....’

The cadaverous face stretched its smile into a wide grin of triumph.
‘At last, some small shred of wisdom! Why you should wish to save one of my enemies is a matter we will not delve into too deeply just now. The fact is that if you wish it, the death you see can be prevented. This mirror only shows what might be, not what is....’
‘Then prevent it, if you can!’ Marfach demanded.

The figure threw back its head and laughed.
‘Not so quickly!’ it said. ‘For that service, I demand another service in return.’
‘What service?’ asked Marfach in a dead voice.

The black-robed figure was no longer laughing.
‘The service you, Marfach killer of men, will perform for the Lord of Mordor is this; to lead his armies against the forces of the West; to slay and drive them from the face of the earth. To defeat this Aragorn and his rabble of bandits, and bring back to Sauron that which he lost many ages ago. Do this and your friend will live, and you will wipe away the treason you have commited against the Eye...’

Marfach stood gazing into the water of the basin for a long time, even though he knew time was precious. To lead Sauron’s army against Aragorn! But he could not let Callanach die. Slowly he nodded, his eyes fixed on some point of the mountains beyond the windows, his blood frozen in his veins.

‘Excellent! cried Eirleach. ‘Let us seal the bargain!’

And with that the tall, crooked figure, walked back to the long table and picked up one of the silver chalices.
‘What of the Ranger...?’ said Marfach, gesturing at the basin. The dark figure snapped his fingers, and the water in the basin suddenly went dark, as if someone had blown out a lamp whose light reflected on its surface.
‘It is done!’ said the figure. ‘Now, drink to our bargain!’

Marfach stepped away from the font and walked to the table. He raised his hands numbly and took the cool silver chalice Eirleach held out to him. Inside was the dark wine with snow heaped in its depths. Marfach lifted it to his lips slowly.

Then he caught the smell, and it was not of wine. He stared at the surface of the drink, and it was not a clear red but opaque and viscous. Marfach pulled his head back but just then the voice came again, this time imperious and impatient;
‘Drink! Or the death foretold will come to pass!’

Marfach raised the chalice again and put the rim to his lips. He winced in disgust at the smell; there could be no mistake. The cup contained blood. Over the edge he saw the Dark Lord smile.
‘Drink, or there is no agreement and the Ranger dies!’

Marfach closed his eyes and drank....