The Dragon and the Fox

by Varda

Chapter 1: The Queen of Crows

Boromir leaned over in the saddle and asked his captain, "Who is that girl practising with the bow? She shoots better than the men!"

"That is Dian, my lord. Her foster-brother is a Ranger, Aonta. She would be a Ranger too, if we let her!"

"Perhaps we should let her," replied Boromir."Marksmanship like that should not be wasted on straw targets...."

*     *     *

Dian sat on her narrow bed and listened for the sound of footsteps approaching in the cobbled street outside. Every sense was alert, and she could hear her aunt's voice through the walls, speaking and weeping in turns, and her uncle's deeper voice, calm and resigned, trying to comfort her.

Idly Dian ran her hand over the coverlet, a patched and faded material not quite wide enough to cover the hard wooden bed. Someone (not Dian, who hated needlework) had embroidered it with a scene from the days of Gondor's kings, a prince in gilded armour riding a white horse to war, surrounded by lillies. A patched and faded dream of glory gone forever.

Dian had not slept in the bed since word had come of her cousin's death at Osgiliath two days before. Now she waited, in the house of the uncle and aunt who had raised her, for them to bring back what was left of Aonta: his sword, his Ranger's gear, his silver star-shaped brooch. Not his body, that was hacked to pieces and left at the Ford. They had now little enough to show for an only son, and her foster-brother. Dian gripped the material in her hand, hard and strong as a man's from sword-practice and horse-riding.
Revenge is better than tears....

A knock on the street door startled her, and she heard her aunt give a wail, a long keening, and the other women join in. Dian covered her ears in disgust; silly women! Blows are what are needed, not tears! But how had she not heard the man approach in the narrow empty street? She got up and hurried into the hall and across the courtyard.

In the walled city of Minas Tirith space was scarce, and even a well-off merchant's house such as this was of modest size and surrounded by high walls and steep streets and alleys. Like the other houses in Goldhawk Street, named for the inn at the junction with Market Street, this presented to the outside world only a low thick oaken door set in a high stone wall and bound with iron straps and studded with great round-headed nails. Visitors passed through into a tiny courtyard with a row of empty pots and a small fountain, now dry; water had to be conserved in case the cisterns that collected rainwater for the city high up on the mountainside fell into enemy hands.

The courtyard was dark in the winter dusk but a shaft of yellow light fell through the door onto a tall soldier in a grey Ranger's cloak standing uneasily, his sword hilt catching the lamplight. He was talking to Dian's cousin and foster-sister Seolta but turned when he saw her come out.

Dian looked the Ranger up and down in surprise; it was usual for a Captain to bring the family the belongings of the dead warrior but this was a Ranger unknown to Dian, a young man, tall and thin with long tawny hair and a face pale as if from a long illness.

"Who are you?" she demanded. The Ranger was taken aback by her abruptness. He had expected a sombre household, not to be ambushed by a tall, black-haired girl with angry green eyes.

"I will tell you my name if you tell me yours" he said quietly. Dian glared at him but before she could reply the door behind them opened and Dian's aunt and uncle came out. Dian stood aside, her arms folded. Her uncle stepped forward to greet the Ranger and they turned to go inside. Dian made no effort to follow, but before he went in her foster-sister Seolta seized from the Ranger a bundle wrapped in dark cloth and handed it to Dian.

"You take this, Dian. It is yours by right."

Dian started forward eagerly and took the long sword in its battered and dirty scabbard then turned and went back to her room and closed the door. The tall young Ranger looked after her, then went in to the family.

Dian sat down on her bed holding the sword. The light was poor in the room, one guttering tallow candle. It had been many days since there had been wax candles in the market. But Dian knew the sword almost without seeing it. It was an old weapon of a design foreign to Gondor; a Scorpion, a weapon of the Haradrim. Lighter and longer than a sword of the North, it must have fallen into the hands of the Rangers during a battle long ago and had been brought to the Armoury. The men of the South were skilled smiths and the steel was fine, blue-tinted with a keen edge. Aonta had taken it because he liked the lightness and length. It was adorned with a pattern of griffin's heads on the hilt and a large crystal, scored and chipped, in the pommel. Now it belonged to the family of the slain Ranger, who would never use it but put it over the hearth as a memento of their dead son.

Mementos! Heirlooms! These people deserved to be beaten! Dian drew out the sword, with a slight ringing sound, and held it in the yellow candlelight. She had handled Aonta's sword many times, practising with him. Now she practised alone, attacking and parrying an invisible enemy. The blade made a low whirring like a summer mosquito....

It was a hot day. In the dusty narrow courtyard Dian practised with her foster-brother's sword until sweat ran down her face. Her aunt came out, her face stern.
"This is no pastime for a maid!" she said. Dian lowered the sword.

"You would have me at my needlework?" she asked in a low voice. Her aunt faltered.

"Well, yes...."

"So I can fell orcs with my embroidery?"

Seeing that she would not win this argument, Dian's aunt retreated muttering. Seolta was sitting in the shade, lazily watching Dian.

"You would not have to fell them with your embroidery, sister, just show it to them. They would think if the maids of Gondor could butcher a piece of cloth in such a manner what could their menfolk not do?"

Dian sheathed the sword and looked at Seolta, trying not to smile. Seolta's name meant "elegant," and she had a feline grace and beauty, lying on a bench with her long golden hair spread out in the sun. But Seolta could ride better even than Dian and was a deadly shot with her light hunting crossbow. However she was not interested in arms, but in netting a rich merchant to marry. Like good candles, the war had left them in short supply.

Luan went inside to her husband, sitting at his desk with his ledger open working out what he had lost since the war had dried up trade.

"You must speak to Dian!" she said in desperation. "All she does is learn to fight!"

"What do you want me to say to her?" Cianóg asked.

"The city will soon be under siege. What good will maidenly graces be when Sauron's Easterlings are billeted in Goldhawk Street?" Luan sighed and sat down. She looked at her husband. "Perhaps it is time to tell her who she is."

Cianóg put down his quill and sat back, looking out the tiny mullioned window. "Not yet" he said.

"Cianóg," said his wife, "It is clearer every day she is not a merchant's daughter. She is better at arms than many men. She practises on the Field of War constantly. Veteran warriors fall off their horses trying to outdo her. She is a raven among sparrows."

Cianóg looked up at her.

"Set her free," said Luan.

Dian heard a door open and suddenly reached over and seized her black fur-trimmed cloak, throwing it about her shoulders. She sheathed the sword and took it with her out into the hall. The Ranger was leaving. When she came out her aunt and uncle turned to stare at her.

She walked up to the warrior and said, "I am coming with you."

There were gasps from her cousins and her foster-parents. The Ranger looked about in bewilderment. Luan stammered, "But, Dian...."

"Must we lose you too?" asked Dian's uncle, and she turned to him with regret and took his hand and embraced him, then turned away, not wanting to meet his gaze. Her cousins' faces showed something between outrage and amusement, but they had the sense to say nothing. Seolta's golden head was bound with a black velvet ribbon. Her face was dry-eyed and stony. She kissed Dian and whispered in her ear,

"Kill them all, sister."

The Ranger said, "I don't know what the Captain will say...."

"He will be glad to have a warrior to replace the one he has lost, if he is a true Captain of Gondor!" said Dian with spirit. No-one spoke and before they could think of more objections, Dian embraced her aunt, not catching her eye, and went out into the street, followed by the Ranger. The door slammed. Dian took a deep breath of the evening air, filled with the smoke of wood fires, and looking at the man said,

"Now, tell me your name, Ranger."

"Críonna" he said, looking ill at ease.

"What manner of name is that?" demanded Dian.

"It means 'The Wise.' It was given to me by the Elves, who raised me," said Críonna.

Dian was looking intently at him in the starlight.