The Dragon and the Fox

by Varda

Chapter 2: Tales For Children

The City of Minas Tirith is built on seven levels. On every level is a wall and in every wall is a gate. No two gates are aligned, so travellers ascending to the citadel from the plain below must wend to and fro, threading a maze of streets to reach each gate, a long low-arched tunnel often hewn out of living rock. Each gate is protected by a bastion and behind each bastion is a guardhouse defended by soldiers of the Tower Guard in their black livery emblazoned with the white tree and stars of Gondor.

The moon had risen above the sheer black crags of Mindolluin and was flooding the war-harassed city with calm silver light when Dian and Críonna reached the end of Goldhawk street and made their way along Market Street towards the Sixth Gate. Named for the Corn Market which usually took place in the square behind the bastion, the street was now empty and littered with straw; there had been no corn market for many weeks. On the orders of the Steward the market had been closed, and bread, hard black rye bread, was now doled out by the army.

"It will only make matters worse, create shortages and encourage hoarding," said Dian's father, Cianóg. But like so many of the Steward's orders in these days, it was harsh yet ineffectual, and now the city went hungry.

Dian and Críonna reached the massive gate at the lower end of the broad stone tunnel and, a guard in the livery of the Tower scrutinised them with suspicion. He stared at Críonna but knew Dian and allowed them to pass. The tunnel was dark, lit only by a single torch in an iron sconce and water trickled down the walls. Their footsteps echoed loudly as they ascended the steep pavement and emerged out into the Sixth Level of the city. Here another guard scrutinised them. The Steward and his council thought of nothing but the danger of spies, and many had been arrested and taken away to the prison in the Citadel. Anyone not born in the City, or even some that were, went in fear of being seized. The guard stared curiously at Críonna but Dian hurried on and he followed her without being stopped.

As they passed through each gate Críonna looked up at the cornerstone where there was fixed a shield emblazoned with the symbol of that Level. The origins of these emblems were lost in time, but probably once denoted the trades or guilds of that quarter of the city. From the lowest level they went: The Portcullis, the Dolphin and the Wheatsheaf; the Hawk, the Hammer and the Halfmoon.

The Seventh Level was the Tree and Stars of the Citadel.

Above the Fifth Level stood the mansions of the nobility of Gondor. Their houses were not cramped but spacious, with great wide gates over which were carved in the stone lintels coats of arms or scenes from the family's martial history, for only these families had the privilege of sending their sons to serve in the Tower Guard. Many of the houses, however, were now in ruins, grass growing along the top of the walls and between the paving stones. The great courtyards were strewn with leaves and the doors barred and the windows shuttered. A ring at the gate bell often brought no more than an ancient servant, lame and half-blind, to inquire who called after all these years. It was a pattern of the decay of Gondor.

As Dian and Críonna made their way up these echoing paved ways a bell rang out over the cluttered lanes and broad stone streets of the city.

"What is that?" asked Críonna. Dian answered,

"Only a stranger to the city would ask such a question. It is the first curfew bell. In a quarter of an hour the second will ring, and by then all the streets must be cleared, by order of the Steward."

Críonna nodded but said nothing. Torches at intervals lit the street but Dian noticed Críonna walked cautiously in the shadows close to the wall. He limped slightly, dragging his left leg. She said,

"I know all the Rangers of the city, why have I not seen you before?"

"I am not a Ranger of Gondor," replied Críonna, "I am a Ranger of the North, of Arnor..."

"Arnor!" said Dian in astonishment."How came you here? And why are you not fighting abroad, in Osgiliath? Only the very old or the very young, the wounded and the scullions are left to guard the city," she spat out the last words.

Críonna said quietly, "I am one of the wounded. I was hurt at the battle of the Fords, in Rohan."

"The battle of the Fords of Isen!" exclaimed Dian, stopping and turning to Críonna. They were under a torch, and she studied him in the flickering yellow light. Now his pallor, his fragile thinness and his limp were explained. The hood of his cloak was pushed back and she saw also a barely-healed gash on his neck; someone had tried to cut his throat, but had aimed badly, or had been slain before they could achieve their task.

Dian said, "Is it true that the men of Rohan were defeated, and their land is ready to fall to the Enemy?"

Críonna said, "Did word not reach the city?"

Dian shook her head, "No. Or rather, yes, but the news was witheld. The council of Denethor feared it would dismay the people." Dian lowered her voice and glanced up and down the empty street. "But merchants from the south brought word, and so we know that the Rohirrim were defeated. But what happened? How did you escape, and how did you come here?"

Críonna sighed and answered, "I do not know what the end of the battle was, for I was wounded by Haradrim and brought off the field. I remember nothing. I was taken to Fangorn, but desired to return to the war, and I was left at its Eastern borders. There scouts of Gondor found me and brought me here."

Dian asked, "Where were you hurt?"

Críonna answered, "I was speared in the back and shoulder. Now I cannot ride, or shoot the bow, or walk far. I had healers of great skill, but I could not stay for them to do their work. I still have no strength in my left hand."

"Show me," said Dian. Críonna held out his hands and she took them in her own. His right hand was strong and warm, but the left was cold and his grip was weak. She said, "This is nothing that practice of arms and time cannot make good."

Críonna said, "Time, lady, is what neither we nor Gondor have."

Dian stood looking at the Ranger. His grey eyes were sad but there was a half-smile on his face. Realising she was still holding his hands she hastily let them go and turned to walk on.

She asked, "Who were these healers? Who brought you to Fangorn?"

"Ents," said Críonna.

"Ents?" repeated Dian. "What are they?"

"Tree herders," Said Críonna, "shepherds of the forests..."

Dian stopped and faced him. "That is a tale for children, Críonna. Ents don't exist. It must have been a fever-dream from your wounds."

Críonna smiled in spite of himself. "It was no dream. They brought me to Fangorn, where an Elf with great knowledge of healing saved me."

Dian had her hands on her hips now and a stern look on her face. "Elves...Ents... next thing you will tell me you have feasted with Queen Galadriel herself!"

Críonna's half-smile had become a broad grin, and at these words he started laughing.

Dian's face was dark with annoyance. "What are you laughing at?"

But Críonna could not answer. Dian watched him curiously; his cloak was not grey, as she had thought at first, but of some shimmering material that seemed to absorb light and colour yet remain indistinct. And the sword at his side was of an unfamiliar design, and the scabbard was wrought with some silver metal, fine and richly engraved. Under his plain tunic he wore a chain mail shirt, but the mail was of gilded metal, shaped into overlapping leaves, winking in the torchlight. Some of the leaves were dented and scored.

Dian said, "What is it like?"

Críonna recovered himself and said, "What?"

"To be in a battle," Dian said with a half-fearful, half-hungry glint in her eye.

Críonna's smile vanished. "Lady, you will wish you were back in Goldhawk Street."

Dian said nothing for a moment. Then she said, looking up to the Seventh Level of the city, "Not in Goldhawk Street, nor even in the Citadel, the White Tower itself, will there be refuge from battle soon.'

Into the silence that followed her words came the clear ringing of a bell. Dian swore,
"The second curfew! We must be quick or the night watch will catch us. Follow me...."