The Dragon and the Fox

by Varda


Chapter 103:  Nothing but a Dream

The barracks of the Rangers of Ithilien in Minas Tirith were nothing like as large or imposing as the quarters of the Citadel Guard. They were not even easy to find, being entered by a low oak door on a narrow street in the shadow of the Citadel. Once inside however, the narrow entrance opened out into a hall roofed with carved wooden beams soaring away up into darkness even in the daytime. From these beams hung many trophies taken by the Rangers in the long wars with Mordor. Most of the ragged banners and splintered weapons had been won during the time of Faramir’s leadership.

But the Rangers of Ithilien, just like the Rangers of the North, found no joy in crowded city streets and cramped stone quarters. Even during the war these barracks had stood empty while the Rangers fought the Enemy for every tree and stream of their beloved Ithilien. Now that peace had come the Rangers had returned to the sunlit forests and river valleys of their homeland for good.

With King Elessar’s permission the Black Company were quartered in the empty barracks, at least until the Rangers among them should return to Arnor or decide to stay in Gondor, and the Elves of the company went back to their home in Lorien.

As Captain, Crionna had been given a room to himself. It was a narrow, high-ceilinged cell furnished with a hard wooden bed and lit by a tiny iron-barred window. Used as they were to a bed of heather and a ceiling of night sky, the Rangers of Arnor did not much crave luxury, so it was not the rocky bed that kept Crionna from sleep. He lay wide awake on his back, gazing into darkness and listening to the watch bell tolling the hours of night away. He no longer had any pain from his wounds, thanks to the healing power of the Ents’ salves and draughts. What kept sleep at bay were his thoughts, his memories of the war, and faces that rose up before him in the darkness. The faces of those whom he would never see alive again.

The tiny window became a square of grey; it was close to morning, but the prospect brought Crionna no joy. What good was peac e in Middle Earth if he had no peace in his heart?

Suddenly his thoughts were interrupted by a loud knocking on the door of his room. With the instincts of a warrior, Crionna leaped from his bed and drew his sword in one single swift movement. But before he could call out a challenge the door opened a crack to reveal the lined and weatherbeaten face of the old warden of the barracks. He was holding a half-burned tallow candle in one hand and the light from below gave his face a macabre appearance. Grumpy from being woken up, he said hoarsely;
‘Beg pardon my lord, but there be one at the door to see you.’

‘Someone to see me?’ repeated Crionna in surprise, but before he could ask any more questions the old man had slammed the door and was shuffling away down the hall. Crionna had to pull on his boots and fasten his sword belt around his waist as quickly as he could and throw himself out of the door to catch up with the old man. He struggled to fasten the brooch of his cloak then came up short as the warden stopped abruptly outside the door of the refectory.

‘I put him in here maister’ he said to Crionna. ‘There be nowhere else in the barracks for receiving visitors!’

With that the old man turned the iron ring that served as a handle and pushed the heavy door open. He shuffled forward into the room and put the candle holder down with a bang on the end of a long well-worn oak table. Then he turned and brushed past Crionna and tramped off back to his warm brazier in the warden’s room. Crionna heard him mutter;
‘This be a barracks for soldiers, not a hostel for guests and theys visitors...!’

When the warden was gone Crionna looked around the deserted refectory.

This was the largest room in the barracks, and had once been used for meetings as it was the only area capable of holding a large number of people. Now, like the rest of the barracks, it was empty and echoing, the worn stone flags covered with withered rushes and dry fronds of meadowsweet. Dust lay thick on the polished oak table where once a hundred men had feasted at a single sitting. At the end of the hall, on the wall over the massive fireplace, there hung a great troll lance made, it was said, by the Dwarves. Its head was green with verdigris and on its haft there were stains of black orc blood.

Just under the stone mantelpiece, staring up at the lance, stood a man clad in a long, midnight-blue cloak. When the warden slammed the door the man did not turn but continued to study the weapon. Crionna peered at the figure by the yellow light of the candle and the faint blue dawn that was creeping through the small windows high up in the arched roof.
‘Who are you?’ he asked, feeling his own voice to be an intrusion in the reverent silence of the ancient feast hall. The figure still did not turn. Crionna took a few paces forward, refusing to feel alarmed althoughthere was something disturbing about this figure and also something familiar. Still it did not turn.

‘I bid you answer me!’Crionna commanded loudly, reaching out to take the stranger’s shoulder. But at that moment the man turned to face him.
‘Cianda!’ gasped Crionna, taking a step backwards.

Even in the poor light the Captain of Rangers knew the Captain of the Citadel Guard, Boromir’s lieutenant and a member of Denethor’s High Council of Minas Tirith. The two men stood facing each other and for all the contrast between the black-haired Captain of the Guard in his dark blue, silver-embroidered cloak and the fair-haired Captain of Rangers in his worn leather tunic and long, heather-green cloak, they were more like two brothers than two long separated friends. Crionna stared in amazement and unexpected joy and Cianda smiled too. Then they both broke into laughter and threw their arms around each other in a rib-crushing embrace.

‘Cianda!’ cried Crionna pushing himself back and gazing at his friend’s face. ‘This is a meeting beyond all my wildest hopes! I thought you were dead!’
Cianda frowned. ‘I almost was, my friend....’

Crionna looked more closely at Cianda. The grey dawn light revealed the pale thin face that the Ranger remembered, and the same dark, hooded eyes with their closed, watchful look. His wavy black hair was streaked with grey and cut short, forming a dark halo round his face that made him look younger but the depths of his eyes had the weariness of age. There was a freshly healed scar on his face, running from the side of his eyebrow to his jaw.
‘I think you have been in the wars my friend’ said Crionna nodding at the scar. Cianda smiled .
‘No more than you, Crionna. But this much can be said; we are both alive....’

Crionna smiled too and pointed to one of the long wooden benches.
‘Let us sit down while you tell me what happened after we last parted....’
Cianda wrapped his dark blue cloak around him against the chill of the stone flags of the hall and sat down stiffly. Without waiting he started to speak, staring at the flagged floor but seeing something that was invisible to Crionna.

‘Just after you left the city I found myself charged with treason...’ Crionna could not suppress an exclamation of astonishment. Cianda smiled grimly.

‘Yes, I know, it seems incredible. But you must remember how that creature Cag, in that time when Denethor suspected everyone, had come to rule the City Council. The charges were false but hard to disprove. It did not look good for me, but just at that moment Faramir returned to Minas Tirith. He summarily dismissed the charges against me and before he could inquire further into who had cooked them up, the wizard Gandalf arrived in the city with the Perian, or Hobbit as they call themselves, Peregrin Took. The moment that Gandalf entered the city, Cag disappeared. ‘

‘So our fears were well founded...’ murmured Crionna. ‘He was indeed Sauron’s spy’.
Cianda nodded and replied; ‘We only know a little of the great harm he did, but at the very appearance of Gandalf he vanished, along with that oily scribe of his. The guards at the city gates did not report him leaving so he must have escaped by some secret route, probably the same way he entered Minas Tirith, and the same by which his agents passed in and out to communicate with Sauron...’

Crionna gave an angry snort. Cianda sighed. ‘There was no time to worry about him, however. Just then Denethor ordered Faramir to retake Osgiliath. I begged to be allowed to go with him, but Faramir forebade it. He said he wanted to leave at least one trusted lieutenant behind in Minas Tirith.’

Cianda fell silent. Crionna looked at his face and saw a great sadness.
‘Once again I had been left behind.’ Cianda said quietly. ‘I had been left behind when my captain Boromir set off for Rivendell, never to return. I was left to reproach myself and wonder if I had been with him would he have perished. Now it was all happening again, with his brother Faramir. I tell you Crionna, I knew a bitterness and despair as black as death itself...I wished only to die in battle and scratch some honour from a life marred by miserablefailures....’

Crionna went to speak but Cianda held up a hand. ‘No, my friend, do not say anything. Listen to what happened next....’

‘I was assigned to the defence of the main gate of Minas Tirith. With my own hands I lifted the bars when Lord Faramir returned, mortally wounded as we believed. He was taken to the Citadel, barely clinging to life and we were left to defend a city that seemed to be dying from within, its ruling house destroyed one by one.

‘But we did not have much time to ponder it; soon out of the smoke and fire of battle came Mordor’s terrible siege engine, Grond. Again and again I commanded my archers to direct their arrows at the beasts that pulled the huge device, and the orcs that walked beside it. But the more we slew, the more came up from behind until the entranceway of the gate was choked with great mounds of slain. But if we thought that the dead would be a barrier to the enemy we were wrong; when at last the gate burst asunder and fell before them, great trolls wearing helm and armour and armed with massive clubs and lances strode over the mountain of slain and charged my men, drawn up in battle array in the square behind the gate.’

Tears stood in Cianda’s eyes. ‘The gate of the City that had never been taken in all the history of Gondor was breached, and at last the Enemy entered Minas Tirith. We shot but a single volley of arrows before we were scattered by monsters, trolls crushing men under their feet or throwing them to their deaths. I was flattened by a rebounding blow from a troll lance, and I have this to remember it by....’

Here Cianda pointed to the scar on his face and drew a long breath and paused. Crionna was listening in horrified fascination. But then Cianda smiled.
‘Just then, when we were all in disarray, a great white horse appeared amongst us. It was Gandalf on Shadowfax. He shouted to us to rally and we fumbled to pick up shields and lances and form a wall. The wizard himself rode fearlessly on his white steed up to the trolls and smote them with his great broadsword. No such weapon have I ever seen, and I learned after that it was of Elven make. Its blade was dark blue, and you could see the flames of the burning city reflected in its sharp, cold steel.....’

Cianda paused then he said with a sigh; ‘But even the White Wizard himself could not hold back Sauron and all his might alone. Gradually and with sore loss we were forced back and back till we had to yield the lower circle of the city and flee to the upper levels. What desperate acts of courage and also of cruelty took place in those narrow streets as we fought our retreat, I cannot tell you here. But at last we gained the next level and slammed the great door on the enemy and had a brief moment to draw breath and prepare for what we believed would be our last battle....’

Dawn light was gilding the withered meadowsweet on the stone floor. Cianda gazed at it as if seeing the scene he described;

‘The trolls smashed at the doors with their great stone hammers and we knew it was only a matter of time before they burst asunder just as the Great Gate had done. But we were determined not to fall back any more, but to die there. We were all exhausted, and I was feeling the hurt of my wound. Gandalf himself seemed tired, even he, the great white Wizard. Yet he had time to comfort the Halfling Pippin, who was at his side. I had not realised that the Perian was with us; because he was so small he was easily lost in the turmoil of battle. But now he slid down against a wall to rest his legs and I heard him say to Gandalf in a sorrowful voice;
‘I did not think it would end like this!’

Cianda looked at Crionna and smiled; ‘I do not think...’ he said quietly ‘...that I was meant to overhear what passed between the Wizard and the hobbit. But we were crowded together on the battlements, and I could not help listening.

‘Gandalf told Pippin that death was not the end of our journey. He said; 'I see a far green country under a swift sunrise.'

I tell you Crionna, that when I heard those words, it was as if a great weight fell from my shoulders. No, I did not think I was not going to die. Nor had death lost its terror. It was just that in that moment, hearing Gandalf’s words, I knew at last that Boromir’s death was not the end of my hopes. My beloved captain had followed the path destined for him and it was not for me to question his fate, nor was it for me to blame myself. I had been spared for some reason and my journey would not just end there, in such a way. Suddenly I felt as if I had been reborn. And as if I had known all along that it was about to happen, in that same instant came the wild blowing of the horns of the Riders of Rohan, heralding our rescue from the army of Mordor...’

Cianda looked at Crionna and tears glinted in his eyes. ‘It was not the end of the war, and I was wounded and unable to accompany Aragorn and his army to the final battle. But I was at peace at last'

Cianda stopped talking and a silence followed as if he wished Crionna to ponder all that he had said. At last Cianda spoke again, only this time in a brisk and cheerful voice. ‘I did not come here just to talk about myself, however!’ Crionna looked at him in surprise. Cianda said mysteriously; ‘There is someone you need to see.’

Cianda stood up. The warm light of dawn fell on his thin face, but now it was softened by a quiet smile. With a firm swift tread he walked to a low archway hidden in darkness at the end of the room, pulled back the latch of a heavy oak door and threw it open.

A figure clad in a long, green cloak walked slowly into the room. Crionna started forward, knowing even before he saw the face who it was.....
‘Dian!’ he cried.

The woman threw back her hood and stared at him as if she did not believe her eyes.
‘Crionna!’ she said in a low voice. A tear escaped and ran down her cheek. ‘I thought I would never see you again!’ shsaid.

Crionna glanced at Cianda. He had a strange look on his face, part joy and part sadness. Imperceptibly he nodded encouragement at Crionna who quickly stepped forward and embraced Dian. Through the heavy fabric of her cloak he could feel how thin and frail she was, and when he released her he looked at her and saw she was pale and her long fair hair was cropped short. He saw grey in it too, and lines in her face as if she had just recovered from long illness. Crionna could not think of anything to say, and at last Dian blurted out;
‘How cruel fate is, to bring us together again just before you return to the North!’

Crionna took her hand in his own and felt that it was cold and trembling. He said to her;
‘The Black Company is leaving for the North because that is where their home is. But Dian, my heart does not lie in the North.... but here.’

Dian’s face lit up and her eyes twinkled with something of her old fire. ‘I wonder..’ she said ‘why would that be?’

‘Well..’ replied Crionna ‘...there is a Ranger of the city I would take time to know better....’ Dian was smiling now, her face transformed. Crionna went on;
‘I would especially like to know how she got back to Minas Tirith.’

Dian’s face suddenly clouded over. ‘I was fortunate...’ she said slowly. ‘ My life was saved...’

‘Saved?’ asked Crionna. ‘Saved by whom?’

Dian sighed. ‘That is just it!’ she said in exasperation. ‘I don’t know who – or what – he was. Or even if he was a friend or a foe. His name was Marfach.....’

Marfach looked down at his hands then up at Ardu, who repeated in an urgent voice;
‘You must wake up, Marfach! Somewhere in the world you are at large, and doing Sauron’s will. You must return to the real world and leave this realm of dream!’

‘But how?’ thought Marfach. Then he looked at Ardu and a light gleamed red in his eyes. He took a step back and drew his sword. Ardu watched him with apprehension, remembering the prophecy that his next vision would be his death. Marfach raised the sword, and the moonlight ran down the blade like blue fire. Ardu took a step backward, but he knew he could never outrun this tall and powerful stranger. He clenched his fists and closed his eyes. He heard the rasp of the sword, a strange sighing and a dull noise as of something falling to the ground.

Ardu opened his eyes and saw Marfach stretched on the dark heath before him. His eyes were open but he was not moving. The sword lay beside him stained with blood that appeared black in the moonlight. There was a long ragged gash in the Elven cuirass Marfach wore and his tunic was stained with blood. But on his face was a look of peace.....

Elrond looked away from the towering figure and down at the ring Vilya on his hand, glowing fitfully with blue fire. He felt angry that his powers were not equal to this moment, but he had not expected such a challenge, and Sauron was strong with all the power that he had rallied for just this one attack. And the creature Marfach was powerful too, with the power of a great Elf lord, even a fallen one. Elrond took hold of the ring and removed it from his finger.

At once the terrible burning pain ceased and a cold ache took its place. There were ashes in Elrond’s heart, but he placed the ring on his palm. Better that he hand it over than it were cut off. Given freely, it might lose yet more of its power, which Elrond had known since the destruction of the Great Ring was waning. But it was a bitter defeat. Elrond could not stop himself from looking up into the red eyes again.

To his astonishment, the red eyes were gone. The drawn sword was gone too, sheathed or simply disappeared. Sauron was also gone. In his place stood a tall red haired figure clad in an ancient Elven cuirass and a long ragged Ranger’s cloak. His eyes were grey and fixed on Elrond and in them there was no danger, just a look of great sadness. Although he was still towering over Elrond, all the menace had gone out of his being. He nodded to the ring on Elrond’s hand and said;

‘Put the Ring of Sapphire back on your finger, Lord Elrond, and continue to rule your realm with its power till it wanes to nothing. Neither Sauron nor any demon of Mordor will ever threaten it or you again. This was nothing but a dream, born of your fears and your own struggle to reconcile a great past with an uncertain future. Think not of Sauron, for he is gone, and he will never return.....and forgive me.’

With that Marfach walked past Elrond, who stood in amazement with his ring still on his outstretched palm. The ragged green cloak brushed the Elf Lord who felt a chill run through him. But just as he shook himself out of his stupor and moved to stop Marfach leaving, the tall red haired figure disappeared through the doorway and vanished into the maze of corridors in the house of Rivendell.

Marfach moved quickly, knowing his way well from the time when he had been an Elf lord and welcome in the halls of this great Elven home. He did not know what he would do now, but he knew that he must leave Middle Earth for good and right away. Never could he let what happened this night be repeated, and only if he were gone could that be certain. At last he found a wide arched doorway that led out onto a terrace overlooking the waterfall.

‘If I can take with me all the evil I brought into the world....’ he thought. ‘..I would gladly leave it. I thought there might be life for me in Middle Earth when peace came, but tonight has shown me otherwise. There is no other path for me now....’

With his long legs Marfach stepped easily up onto the marble balustrade. Far, far below in the moonlight rushed the white torrent of the river, broken by jagged black rocks.
‘I will never again be a portal for evil into the world....'