The Dragon and the Fox

by Varda

Chapter 3: Traitors and Spies

A horned moon hung low over the White Mountains and the Pelennor Fields and the plain beyond was hidden in a black fog when Críonna found himself shaken from an uneasy, haunted sleep. He looked up blinking in the light of a smoky tallow candle and saw bending over him the doorwarden who had let him and Dian into the Rangers' barracks the night before.

Críonna sat up stiffly. He was alone in the empty echoing dormitory, the timbered roof stretching up into darkness. Exhausted from his journey he had stretched out on a hard wooden bunk and slept with only his Elven cloak for warmth.

Now the anxious, wizened face of the guard peered close to his, "You must rise now, Ranger. the Army Council will meet at dawn, and you must present yourself to them, as must anyone entering the city, whoever they are!"

Críonna got up shivering. This had once been the garrison of the Rangers in the City. But now all the Rangers were abroad fighting in Osgiliath and none were left in Minas Tirith. The guard looked over his shoulder uneasily; he had let Críonna and Dian in after curfew the previous night, although only after much pleading and now he was in fear that he would be punished. Críonna smiled at him and said, "I am ready, take me to the Council...what is your name?"

"Clais," said the old man.

The name meant "a dyke to stop an enemy charge," and Críonna wondered how he had got the name; how many heroes lived forgotten lives like his...the old soldier had one empty sleeve pinned up, and his face was weathered by years of sun and wind. Watching as guardian to this empty barracks, echoing to ghosts of Gondor's great days, was all he had. He shook his head,

"You must eat something first, Sir. Come with me to the mess...."

Críonna followed Clais out into a long hall lit by a single torch. All along the walls were hung shields, with the seven emblems of the city painted on them in bright colours which caught the flickering light. The wooden ceiling was vaulted and hung with banners, shredded by battle and by time. Their footsteps echoed in the silence and Clais hurried ahead and opened a heavy low door into a long refectory with a flagged stone floor and plain wooden tables and benches. A candle on one of the tables guttered in the breeze from the opened door.

Clais said, "Wait here, sir..' and hurried out, leaving Críonna alone. He walked over to the great open fireplace, wide and high enough for a man to stand within it, and looked up at a troll lance hung over the mantlepiece. It had a long black handle and a steel shaft with barbed shoulders. Moth-eaten pennants hung from it, covered in dust, and along the wooden handle was written the words:

"Deilg Dubh is mise é ón Arnor"

"The Black Thorn am I, from the Kingdom of Arnor," murmured Críonna to himself, and a pang of yearning for Arnor and the North shot through him. He looked more closely at the weapon and saw on the hexagonal shaft patterns engraved, lozenges and chevrons. These were symbols of the Dwarves of Moria. The lance might have been made for the warriors of Arnor but it was made by the Dwarves of Khazad-Dum. On the wood were blotches of black tar: dried orc blood. Críonna shivered and turned away as a door slammed behind him. He looked round and Clais was setting out a platter with a small square of black rye bread and a pat of greasy butter. He put a pitcher of watery milk down and bowing said,

"Poor fare, Sir, but all we have in the city these days."

Críonna nodded and Clais went out. The Ranger sat down and ate a mouthful of the dry gritty bread then left it and taking a draught of the thin milk got up and walked to the window. He gazed through one of the trefoil-shaped openings in the iron shutters at the grey light stealing over the roofs and towers of the city. As the last starlight glittered on the frost-whitened walls and gates, for one moment Críonna saw the fabled city of the White Tower of Ecthelion as he had imagined it. Then the black fog rising from the river covered it again and even the dawn seemed like night. Críonna began to doubt his wisdom in coming to Minas Tirith, and wondered where the Black Company were, and Callanach and Líofa...

The door opened and he turned to see Dian come in. She looked cold and tired, her eyes were red and Críonna knew she had been weeping for her foster-brother Aonta. She had her fur-trimmed cloak pulled up tightly to her chin and her face was pale. Under black brows her wide-set green eyes watched Críonna closely. He got quickly to his feet and came over to her and asked,

"Where did you spend the night?"

Dian made a face, "In the guard's lodge, on the floor. At least you got a bed, however hard." She looked over her shoulder and said in a low voice, "We both have to go before the Army Council. Watch what you say."

"Why?" interrupted Críonna. "I am a Ranger, what more do they need to know?"

Dian nodded and said, "I know, but the city is ruled by the council of Denethor, and his councillors sit on the Army Council as well, and they suspect everyone. Denethor himself is never seen now, he sits in his great hall all day, with the shards of his son Boromir's hunting horn on his lap."

Críonna looked puzzled. Dian looked at the open door and went on in a low voice.

"By a dream sent to Faramir his son, and by this horn found in the reeds of the Anduin, it is believed that Boromir is dead...."

"The heir of the Stewards dead!" Críonna exclaimed in spite of himself.

Dian motioned him to silence then went on, "We are forbidden to speak openly of it. Faramir has gone from the city, some say in disfavour with his father. It is no secret that Boromir was his father's favourite. Now Denethor rules the city through his council, men not known to us, yet none dare oppose what they decree. But what are Denethor's orders and what are those of the council, who can tell."

Clais appeared in the doorway; he seemed flustered, "Sir, Dian, the Council is waiting for you."

Dian and Críonna left the mess hall and walked down the great hall of the Rangers' barracks. Their steps echoed along the wide stone flags. The ceiling of great wooden beams soared above them and windows high in the walls let in the first shafts of dawn. Set into the walls were spears bearing banners and pennants, borne in war long ago, torn and stained and dirty. Críonna peered at them and realised that they were old, even ancient. No trophies were brought back from war these days; so many and so strong were the enemy that the soldiers of Gondor were barely able to bring themselves back.

Clais was some way ahead. Dian whispered to Críonna, "The Captain of the Guard of the White Tower is Beregond, but he will not be here, he reports to Denethor at dawn every morning. He will send his lieutenant, Cianda. Once he was Boromir's second in command, and he loved the prince greatly. He has asked to be allowed to go to the fighting to avenge him but has been refused. It is said he has lost all heart. But he is a just man and might grant me permission to join the Rangers. Be careful what you say...."

"But Dian, I am not on trial," Críonna answered.

Dian gave a bitter smile, "The council sees traitors and spies everywhere. Be on your guard, you must persuade them you really are what you say."

They had reached a massive doorway with great wooden double doors bound with iron. Clais opened them with difficulty and Críonna and Dian walked into a spacious high-ceilinged council room. Before Críonna could look about a thin shrill voice demanded,

"What do you mean by wasting the Council's time? What kept you?"

Clais slammed the doors and scuttled off down the hallway.