The Dragon and the Fox

by Varda

Chapter 96: The Black Pavilion

Seated behind Eomer on his tall warhorse, Pippin tried not to look down at the ground, a dizzyingly long way down. Then the spirited grey stallion whinnied loudly and surged forward into a gallop, making the hobbit’s stomach lurch. He clung tightly to the Lord of the Mark’s sword belt and thought;
‘Boats are bad...but horses are far worse....!’

Around Pippin rode the captains of the West, but he could only hear the jingle of their horses’ bits and the clink and rattle of their armour. All the hobbit could see was Eomer’s broad back encased in his richly decorated leather armour.

Pippin wished he could sit in front, as he had when Gandalf bore him on Shadowfax. But Gandalf rode at the King’s side now, his face grim and preoccupied, and Aragorn seemed to have forgotten the hobbit’s existence. Pippin no longer felt bold enough to make a silly request of his former comrades in front of all these great lords.

‘Oh why didn’t they leave me back in Minas Tirith, with Merry?’ thought Pip as the cantering of the horse jarred every bone in his body and the thought of falling off in front of this noble company made his cheeks burn.
‘They brought you along to represent the Shire!’ a voice in Pippin’s head replied sternly.
‘Yes, yes, of course...’ he thought. ‘That was it. I must not disgrace the Shire! I should just try to imagine that this horse is really a rocking chair beside a roaring fire in the Green Dragon on a cold winter’s night, and Barney the tap boy is bringing me some of their finest ale....’

But Pip had barely conjured up this pleasant vision when the horse under him shied violently and he was flung to the side. He would have fallen under the hooves of the other horses had Eomer not thrust out a gauntleted hand to push him back into the saddle.

All the vanguard of the army was thrown into confusion, horses rearing in alarm as their riders strove to regain control. Only Aragorn on Brego was undisturbed, the King remaining still and stern on his mount as he gazed at the two figures who had caused the commotion by appearing suddenly out of the willows that flanked the road. Pippin craned around Eomer to get a closer look at them....

One was a tall, lean man who walked with a slight limp. He was clad in a long grey-green cloak fastened at the neck with a seven pointed silver star and a long leather tunic such as the Rangers wore. The figure beside him was smaller and slighter and also clad in grey, and as Pippin stared he pushed back the hood of his cloak to reveal the features of an Elf. Then they both bowed low to the King.
‘Why, that is Liofa, the harpist!’ Pippin overheard Legolas say to Gimli.
‘He is from the woodland realm of Mirkwood, my homeland. He was once harpist to my father King Thranduil, but he disgraced himself by friendship with that brigand Marfach...’

But for his gaunt, unshaven look, Liofa’s companion might have passed for an Elf as well, for he had hair of light gold and his face was pale and fine-featured, with piercing grey eyes. But before Pip could guess who he was Eomer urged his horse forward as if to defend Aragorn, and demanded angrily;
‘Who are you, and what mean you by approaching The King in such a rude fashion?’

The tall man bowed to Eomer and said;
‘I see you do not remember me, Lord Eomer. And yet I fought for you and your Prince, Theodred, at the Fords of Isen...’

Eomer stared at the man for some moments, then said in disbelief;
‘You are Crionna? The leader of the Black Company? But I thought you were dead....’

Crionna smiled.
‘I thought so too!’ he said, remembering the Ents Ashwing and Elmfoot and how they had rescued him after the battle of the Fords, at that very place where Theodred had been mortally wounded.

For a moment Crionna forgot the present, recalling the care given to him by the kindly Ents in their peaceful woodland haunt. But the Captains of the West, and the King himself were waiting, staring at him, so Crionna forced himself back to the present and realising that he could by no means tell them his life had been saved by talking trees, he cleared his throat and bowing again to Aragorn he said;

‘My lord King...I apologise for our sudden appearance. We came on this band of Easterlings and orcs some days ago, and wanted to warn you of their advance, but hampered by my injuries we could not move quickly enough to overtake them, so we waited out the battle and now we present ourselves to you, in a rough and rude manner perhaps, but none the less loyal and ready to rejoin your army and fight for you. I am Crionna, former captain of the Black Company....and I bring with me Liofa the Harpist, who was taken from your service....’

Aragorn gazed thoughtfully at Liofa. He had heard of how the Elf had left the city on the eve of the army’s departure, in order to accompany Marfach. But Aragorn had forgiven others for turning back in the face of the enemy before now, and at least Liofa had been motivated by reasons other than plain cowardice. Aragorn had no wish to punish the Elf, nor even to make an example of him. But more than anything he wanted to know where Liofa had left Marfach.

But these were things not to be talked about in front of the army. He said to the Captains;
‘We will halt till our men have returned from pursuing the enemy. Rest yourselves and your mounts and we will continue when we have regrouped....’

The princes and nobles saluted and began to dismount and lead their horses off the road. Aragorn dismounted too, and with Gandalf at his side he walked up to Crionna and Liofa. Aragorn said quietly to the Elf;
‘Marfach took you with him, which should not have been. How did you escape from him, and where is he now?’

Liofa bowed again and replied in a low voice;
‘My lord, Marfach let me go of his own free will. He said he did not want my blood on his head because there is too much there already. He engaged Crionna in single combat....’ here Liofa indicated the Ranger. ‘...and defeated him. But rather than take Crionna’s life he made him swear to bring me back to you. Then he entered Mordor, as far as I know. He was close to the Black Gates when we parted, and purposed to go there. After that, I know not what happened....’

Aragorn glanced at Gandalf and some unspoken thought passed between them. He said quietly to Liofa;
‘I am glad you have returned.‘ Then he looked at Crionna and smiled.
‘You will want to see your comrades of the Black Company. They are with the army. Haste to join them, both of you.....’

Crionna and Liofa smiled with relief and bowed to the King. But as they turned to go, a cloaked figure came running along the road from the rear of the army. It was a Ranger too, only a youngster not much older than Pippin. He looked around wildly and seeing Aragorn’s cloak and richly decorated armour, he flung himself on one knee before the king and gasped out his news;
‘My Lord the captain of the Black Company is fallen...!’
‘Callanach has been slain?’ demanded Aragorn. Beside him, Pippin heard Gimli say under his breath;
‘What did I say? Bad luck follows the Black company like the smell of death. Now they have lost ANOTHER captain...’

Aragorn turned to Eomer and said;
‘Come with me, I must see to this myself. Give Crionna and Liofa mounts and bring them too. Let Prince Imrahil take command of the army....’

Aragorn remounted Brego and accompanied by Eomer and Gandalf, and Legolas with Gimli behind him, the King rode down the straggling column of the army to where the Black Company had returned from their skirmish on the hillside. They were standing in a tight group around someone Aragorn could not see. Eomer shouted at them;
‘Make way, make way for the King!’

The Rangers of the Black Company parted quickly, bowing to their King. Some, however, stayed standing still and did not acknowledge him, as if they were stunned.
‘Where is Callanach your leader?’ demanded Eomer.

Then company pointed out Callanach. He was not dead, but stood in the midst of his men, unsteady on his feet, his cloak and clothes torn and dusty, and his face a ghastly grey-yellow, like that of a corpse. His eyes were glazed and staring, as if they saw things invisible to other men.
Gandalf muttered to himself in dismay, then dismounted from Shadowfax and walked quickly up to Callanach.
‘What has happened, Callanach?’ he demanded.

Callanach woke from his trance at the sound of the wizard’s voice, and looked up at Gandalf. Sense and light returned to his eyes. Then he looked at Aragorn and his face went even paler with distress. He would have given anything at that moment not to have to tell the King what had happened to him; but he knew he must. All around were stern faces; Eomer and Gimli and the Elf-prince Legolas, and the anxious, harassed faces of his own men. But the white wizard Gandalf gave Callanach a quiet smile and an imperceptible nod, and the lad gathered the courage to speak.

‘I was thrown from my horse in the fighting...’ he said ‘... almost onto the very point of an orc sword. But at that moment when I should have died everything vanished, the earth, the sky, the orc, my horse, everything! Instead I saw a long airy chamber with a balcony from which was visible high mountains of great beauty and majesty. But it all seemed far away, and long ago....’

Callanach hesitated. Everyone had fallen absolutely silent, and Aragorn was listening intently, his face set in a frown. Pippin found Callanach’s words reminded him uncomfortably of the vision he had seen in the Palantir.....
‘Go on!’ Gandalf demanded.

‘In this long, high chamber..’ went on Callanach ‘... I saw two figures, one tall and clad in shimmering blue, and the other was...Marfach! They were talking together.....’

Callanach then described the conversation between Marfach and Sauron’s avatar, Eirleach. From his place behind Eomer, Pippin held his breath in fascinated horror at the description of Sauron’s Elvish incarnation.

‘...and so, Lord Aragorn....’ concluded Callanach after telling of the debate between Marfach and Sauron ‘Marfach has told the Dark Lord that we are marching against him because we possess his great gift . Sauron stopped the orc that was about to slay me and took its life for mine, in order that I might live and Marfach would be bound to him by my blood....’

When Callanach stopped speaking Aragorn let out a long sigh of relief. He said to the young Ranger;
‘This Marfach had the power to betray us all to Sauron. But for now, if what you say is true and not just a vision sent by Sauron, he has indeed done what he swore to do and has told the Dark Lord that I have what he most desires to regain. So he will hasten to meet us, with all his host....’

At last, Callanach thought, Marfach is vindicated. Aragorn was about to turn away when Callanach said to him;
‘My lord, perhaps it is not fitting now for me to lead the Black Company of Elves and Rangers. For I owe my life to Sauron. Maybe one who is not so tainted should lead the Company.’
Callanach indicated Crionna, standing with Liofa beside him.

‘I see our former leader, Crionna, the Elf-friend, has been brought back to us. The Black Company will be glad of his return! He is brave and noble, and perhaps....perhaps it is better that he resumes the captaincy of the Black Company. After what has happened....’
Callanach’s voice trailed off. A murmur ran round the company.

Aragorn turned back, his face troubled. The Rangers of the Black Company, and their Elves, stood waiting for his reply. He turned to Gandalf.
‘Mithrandir, what say you to this? In matters of wizardry, you have the better of me......’

Gandalf sighed and leaned on his staff, gazing intently into Callanach’s grey eyes. At last he straightened up and said to the King;
‘Callanach’s life was restored to him once before, when Queen Galadriel brought him back from death. So I do not think even Sauron has the power to influence him, once the ancient wisdom of Lothlorien has touched him. But even if it had, Marfach acted out of love when he saved Callanach . That is something Mordor cannot understand, nor can it ever master. Callanach himself is blameless, and as to what will become of him because of Marfach’s deal with Sauron, even the wise cannot see all ends.....’

Aragorn turned to the Rangers.
‘Then what do you say, ye men and Elves of the Black Company? Will you keep Callanach as your leader or give the leadership back to Crionna?’

Just then Crionna stepped forward and bowed to Aragorn.
‘My lord, allow me to speak!’

Aragorn nodded. Crionna said;
‘My Lord, my left arm and shoulder are still weak. I cannot draw a yew bow, nor use a spear in combat. It is not fitting for me to lead the Company, but if he will allow me, I will serve as lieutenant to Callanach, whom I would trust with my life to lead us well!’

There was a murmur of agreement through the ranks of the Black Company. Aragorn looked around them.
‘Is this the will of the whole company, men and Elves?’
There were calls of ‘aye’ and ‘yea’, and none there said no. Aragorn nodded and turned to Callanach.
‘It seems your men still want you to lead them. Well, go now and do so, we have wasted too long on this affair. You will take the vanguard on the road to the Black Gates, and guide the army well!’

Callanach’s face glowed with joy. He bowed and said eagerly;
‘My lord, we will not fail you....’

Aragorn nodded in acknowledgment then spurred Brego onto the road and galloped back to the head of the army. As Callanach watched him go, someone put a hand on his shoulder. He turned to see Liofa standing behind him.
‘Liofa!’ he cried, embracing the Elf and laughing with joy. But when at last they stepped back, each one saw tears in the other’s eyes.
‘Marfach?’ asked Callanach quietly.
‘Marfach....’ replied Liofa with a sigh, glancing at the livid Eastern sky
‘...Marfach is in Mordor....’

Marfach lay on the bare rocky ground, uncomfortable in his new Mordor-wrought armour and mail. He felt like the Great Eye on his breastplate was a red hot brand burning into his skin and he missed almost as he would miss a limb his Elven mail, cloak and sword that had been taken from him. Now, even the thick black cloak given to him by the Mouth of Sauron was unsufficient to keep the frost at bay, for even here in Mordor the air was cold at night.

Sleep was impossible in any case, for all around Marfach the dark and noisome plains of Gorgoroth were crowded with Sauron’s host of orcs, trolls and uruk-hai. There were even men, such men as could bear the company of the evil and the bestial. And from this multitude came a constant noise, like the buzzing of a great horde of stinging insects.

Even in the midst of this vast army camp, Marfach had found some space to himself. Or it could have been that the orcs feared to get too close to him, and gave him room. Whichever it was, he could stretch out on the bare earth, too poisonous to support even the humblest plant life, and observe how the soldiers of Mordor spent the eve of the last great battle of this Age of Middle Earth.

The darkness of the plain was streaked red by innumerable campfires, and around the nearest blaze Uafas and his uruks gobbled a last meal. They washed it down with flagons of a dark, fiery brew, but before they could get at all drunk overseers strode amongst them with whips, knocking away their horn beakers and roaring orders that they were not to befuddle themselves this night of all nights. Chastened and reminded of the grim task they faced the following day – to face in battle the men of the West whom they had not managed to defeat in many centuries – the orcs settled down to playing some crude game of chance, tossing knuckle bones into a ring, and shouting and cursing and cuffing each other as they argued over the result.

Marfach closed his eyes, but he did not try to sleep. Elves do not need sleep, and like the Elves Marfach could will himself to disengage from his immediate surroundings, raising his mind to a higher plane to gain some escape from the pain and tedium of what was passing in his conscious world. He settled himself as comfortably as he could on the rocky ground and breathed deeply. He knew where he wished to be, and what sights he wished to surround himself with and within a short time he was completely oblivious of the dark, teeming orc camp and the murky sky above it. Instead Marfach saw before him a great city spread out under an evening sky full of stars. It was the realm of Doriath, and he was standing on a high terrace of the palace of the Lady Melian.

Instead of the reek of thousands of orcs, the fragrance of a summer evening spread around him, rising from the roses and lilies that grew along the terraces. Tall trees loomed black against the sky, giving up the strong, clean scent of pines. Marfach breathed in deeply, and closed his eyes. Once again he was back where he truly belonged....

Sweet music rose from the gardens of the city, and the sound of Elven voices laughing. Then Marfach saw, at the end of the long marble terrace, the Lady Melian, smiling and beckoning to him.

Below the terrace the lamps of the great city shone like stars, while overhead the real stars were just beginning to sparkle in a deep sapphire sky. Marfach wanted to gaze long at the sight, but he forced himself to walk towards Lady Melian, who still beckoned to him.

But as Marfach walked forward, the smooth white marble pavement suddenly lurched and tilted. Marfach fought to keep his feet, but the slippery white surface continued to rise till he was forced to fall on hands and knees, scrabbling for a grip on what had been the floor, but had now become a sheer wall.

The marble too was no longer smooth and white, but cracked and pitted with holes, and showers of grit and dust tumbled down its surface, making Marfach avert his face and close his eyes. When he had shaken off the dust, he looked up to where Lady Melian had stood, but now there was only a bright mist, like a cloud that drifts in front of the moon. Seeking still for the vision, Marfach let go with one hand and stretched it out to where she had stood....

Just at that moment, a great dark shape came between him and the brightness, blotting it out. At the same time a sharp blow struck him in the ribs, once and then again.

Marfach leaped to his feet in one swift, fluid movement, his hand on the hilt of his Mordor sword and his red eyes blazing. An orc overseer was standing over him, but stepped back hastily when Marfach rose with such speed and advanced on him, a look of killing in his red eyes.

The overseer was a great hulking lump of malevolence, clad in leather and iron armour with a heavy ornate brazen helmet jammed on his thick skull. From its decoration, although encrusted with filth, it was possible to see that the helmet had once belonged to a lord of Gondor. Now two tiny orc eyes glared at Marfach from under its visor, small points of yellow light that filled with fear as it watched the tall Elven shape stride towards him.
‘The Mouth of Sauron.....!’ he cried, and as the creature had anticipated, the name stopped Marfach in his tracks. The orc continued with a smirk;
‘The Mouth of Sauron bids you attend him. Follow me!’

‘What does he want?’ asked Marfach, frowning at the retreating orc’s back.
‘No questions!’ grunted the creature, scurrying away. ‘Just obey!’

Marfach hesitated for a moment, still unwilling to abandon his vision of Doriath. Then with a sigh he followed the burly orc as it made its way with surprising speed and agility through the sleeping army.

In the realm of Lothlorien a long time passed quickly. But here in Mordor every moment lasted forever, and Marfach and the overseer walked for what seemed an age but was probably only half an hour. Marfach had the gloomy opportunity to comprehend the vast size of Sauron’s army and despite all his faith in Aragorn and his hopes for victory the next day, his heart grew cold; this was a mighty host...

At last the overseer led Marfach into a wide, trampled space, guarded by a great circle of axe-wielding uruks from the mountains and squat, squint-eyed orc archers. No-one here was asleep on guard and Marfach was eyed sullenly as the sentries parted unwillingly to let him through.

When he was inside the circle Marfach saw, standing right in the middle of the beaten ground, a great black pavilion. It was large, high and round, and in front of it there burned a huge fire, a bonfire almost. Marfach gazed at it with unease; dimly in its red depths he could see the shapes of helm and spear head, now glowing white hot. Perhaps there had been bodies too in that pyre, he thought, before the fire consumed them. And his Elven mail and sword, which had been stripped from him earlier that day. Marfach felt the flames hot on his face, and tears stung his eyes. Losing his Elven weapons and armour had broken his last link with his people.

Roughly he rubbed his eyes with the back of his hand and turned to look at the tent.

Marfach had never seen anything like it before, even in Mordor. It was a great black pavilion, not made of any fabric, but composed of the black hides of nameless beasts all sewn together. The centre of the tent was supported by a tall pole of black wood on the top of which was set the skull of a great horned beast that Marfach did not recognise, marked in red with the emblem of the Great Eye.

The orc gave him a rough shove in the back.
‘Go on, then!’ he snarled. ‘What are you waiting for?’
Marfach started walking towards the tent. As he approached it he glanced back and noticed that the overseer was not coming with him, but had hurried away out of the circle of guards. A coldness crept down Marfach’s spine.

When he reached the tent, Marfach saw that the corner of one of the great black hides had been pinned up to make an entrance. Stooping low, he entered.

Inside, everything was black, even blacker than the night of Mordor. At first Marfach thought he had been brought here to die, for it was like the darkness of death. Then he made out shapes in the dimness as his eyes grew accustomed to the dark. He started as a voice rang out of the depths of the tent;

‘Marfach! Do not hang back, come forward! I bid you welcome to my humble shelter!’

Marfach knew that voice; it was the Mouth of Sauron. Walking forward, gradually making out more shapes in the dark tent, Marfach at last saw the Mouth himself, clad as he had been earlier, in fine silks of deepest black, but all rotting and dank and torn. This time, however, the Mouth was seated on a great high iron throne, and while he still wore the tall black crown and the veil that left only his mouth bare, he had removed his iron gauntlets, which rested along with his sword and a crowned helmet on a high metal rack at his side.

Without gauntlets, the Mouth’s hands looked curiously naked, like some coiled invertebrates without their shells. They lay in his lap, mottled grey-white, long and bony, with overgrown nails under which there lodged semi-circles of filth. Marfach had thought the creature’s exposed mouth was loathsome, but his hands were even more sickening....

The Mouth raised a skeletal finger and beckoned.
‘Approach, Marfach! You have nothing to fear in my presence! You above all, who are favoured of the Eye...’
And the Mouth smiled, his black lips stretching wide over yellow fangs.

Marfach walked forward, although in truth he knew not if it was himself who made his legs to move, or some other power. He no longer felt master of his actions. Then the Mouth spoke again.
‘Tonight, as you know, is the Eve of our great conquest of the decadent and downfallen West’

The Mouth paused as if waiting for a reply, but Marfach gave none. The Mouth went on;
‘I would be glad if you would share a toast to our coming victory....the victory of The Great Eye....with me now...’

At his words black-clad attendants moved forward out of the dark and placed a small, round tray of silver on a table between Marfach and the Mouth. On it was a silver pitcher and two heavy goblets encrusted with blood-red gems. One of the attendants poured out the wine then withdrew. The Mouth gestured to Marfach who picked up one cup while the Mouth picked up the other. The skeleton hand raised it high, and the Mouth said;
‘To Victory for the Great Eye and our Master Sauron....’

Marfach hesitated for only the briefest moment. Then his arm seemed to move of its own accord, raising the cup as he spoke the words after the Mouth. But his own voice seemed not to belong to him. Then he drank.

At first the liquid coursing down his throat seemed to have no more taste than water. Then when Marfach had drunk the whole cup, down to the gritty black dregs, the aftertaste hit him like a great burning wave that scorched his mouth and throat and his entire being as if he had swallowed lava. He coughed and retched, and threw away the heavy goblet.
‘You poison me!’ he gasped, but the Mouth just laughed, a sound like claws being dragged down rough wood.
‘Nay, Marfach! I do not have the power of life and death over you. If I had, you would have died long ago. No, I gave you drink just to test you....’

Marfach was wiping his mouth, glaring at the Mouth with his red eyes.
‘Test me?’
The Mouth nodded, still smiling. He was enjoying his little torture.
‘Oh yes, for it is said that the vintage of Mordor is sweet to those who are loyal to Sauron, but bitter to those who are not his true servants!’’

And the Mouth paused, as if in triumph. Marfach straightened up and looked at him with contempt.
‘Did you disturb my rest just to bring me here for a wine-tasting and some cheap tricks, you bag of rotten teeth?’

There was a suppressed titter in the darkness at the back of the tent as the servants enjoyed their master’s humiliation. But the part of the Mouth’s face that was visible went pale and his lips writhed in anger. Marfach stared at him for a few moments then turned on his heel.
‘I have no further business with you....’he said.

He had almost reached the entrance of the tent when a thunderous shout halted him. He turned. The Mouth was standing, and looked taller than any mortal man.
‘Come back!’ he roared.

Marfach stopped, then realising once again that he was not in control of his own movements, he felt his legs carry him back to stand before the Mouth’s throne. When the Mouth spoke again, his voice was low and hissing, like a snake, and his breathing laboured as if he was struggling for air.

‘No, Marfach killer of men, I did not call you here just to drink wine, nor even to bear my testing. There is a duty I must order you to assist me with tomorrow. ’

He stopped. Marfach glared at him and snarled;
‘What duty?’
The Mouth twitched with pleasure and replied;

‘Our lord Sauron has given me a task for you. It is not much, scarcely worthy of your great talents. Why he chose you I do not know, but he said it was you in particular who must perform it....’

Marfach’s roar sundered the shadows of the tent and made even the Mouth jump. For a moment he seemed almost afraid. Then he regained his composure and although Marfach could not see his eyes he could feel his cold gaze.

‘Very well...’ he said, in a low, silky voice. ‘This is what you must do tomorrow....’

And the Mouth rose to his feet and held out his hand. An attendant hastened forward and placed in it a bundle of what seemed to be rags. Then the Mouth walked forward down the steps of his black throne and advanced towards Marfach, holding the bundle out in front of him.

Something about the haphazardly wrapped pile of worn cloth jogged Marfach’s memory. Dread stirred in him, but he suppressed it. It could not be....but now Marfach was staring in horrified recognition at the bundle. It was right before his eyes, and there could be no mistake.

The bundle was the folded jacket, waistcoat and mithril coat of the hobbit Frodo. Marfach recognised them from the time he had encountered Frodo and Sam in Ithilien. He felt a loud roaring in his ears as the terrible realisation dawned; Sauron had captured Frodo. The quest had failed. Sauron had the Ring. When the Dark Lord had pretended to listen to the story about Aragorn possessing the Ring, he had merely been toying with Marfach....

The Mouth of Sauron broke through the turmoil of Marfach’s thoughts;
‘These items you will bear for me tomorrow. Before we close in battle, I will request a parlay with the bandit leaders of Gondor and The West. At that moment, you will bring forth these tokens to show them, to slay what miserable hope they still possess. Guard them well, and prepare to destroy your former friends!’