The Dragon and the Fox
Chapter 4: Die with Honour
The great wooden doors slammed behind them and Críonna and Dian
found themselves in the Council room of the Rangers' barracks, a
circular high-ceilinged room vaulted and lined with weapons, spears and
swords, spiked maces and long-handled throwing-axes. After the gloomy
hall the council chamber was flooded with light as the sun struggled
clear of the black mists covering the East. All along one side of the
room ran high arched windows, unshuttered and facing to the City and
through these Críonna caught his first sight of the White Tower
of Ecthelion, the Citadel of Minas Tirith.
In spite of himself Críonna drew his breath in sharply; the
early sun struck the sheer sides of a great column of pearl and silver,
iridescent in the dawn, its surface refracting light but also gleaming
with rose and gold from the morning sky. Up it rose to the clouds,
fifty fathoms from its base to its pinnacle, a thousand feet above the
plain. As Críonna watched great banners broke out from the
battlements and flew over the narrow streets and silver trumpets echoed
out high and clear. Overhead, many leagues from the ocean, great white
sea birds wheeled and cried, blown in by the Southwest wind. All the
legends of the fabled capital of Gondor came back to Críonna and
he stared in wonder at the sight....
"Do you hear me? Why are you late?" a shrill, insistent voice called
Críonna back from the vision. He looked round at the table.
Standing behind it was a thin stooped figure clad in robes of black and
grey and wearing the gold chain of an elder of the City Council. He had
a round pasty face squeezed into a black cowl and his pale
almond-shaped eyes were gleaming with annoyance. What his real name was
no-one knew or cared, for he was called Cág, Jackdaw, after his
robes and his harsh voice. He was one of the mysterious new councillors
that Denethor had appointed after Boromir his son had not come back.
"Answer me!" he barked.
Críonna looked Cág in the eye and replied in his Northern
accent, "We are not late. We came as soon as we were called. It is you
who are wasting my time. I came to Minas Tirith to fight, not to talk."
Beside him Críonna heard Dian catch her breath. On the other
side of the table from Cág sat a middle-aged man whose ancient
mail shirt strained across his bulk and whose red face spoke of more
time spent in the alehouse than the guardhouse. His hair was turning
grey, but his name, Cruach, meant Steel. He was Master of the Watch, a
company of old soldiers and kitchen boys who patrolled the streets at
night enforcing the curfew, supervising the bread dole and freeing
soldiers from less important duties to return to the fighting. His eyes
bulged at Críonna's words and he fought to conceal a delighted
grin as Cág sat down heavily and murmured, "All who enter the
city must be questioned. It is the Council's decree."
Críonna and Dian stood waiting, and for a moment no-one spoke.
Cruach gave Dian an imperceptible nod of recognition and said, "Let
them be seated, this is not a trial."
"They will stand, we are in haste here!" snapped Cág.
In the silence that followed Críonna looked at the others
sitting at the table. Beside Cág sat his scribe, his quill
already scratching away recording the meeting on yellow parchment. He
had the pale waxy skin of one who is deprived of daylight, with a long
nose blue with cold and a thin, pursed mouth. He reminded
Críonna of a river vole snuffling among the weeds as he poked
among his scrolls, but he was as feared as his master and had placed
many people in the citadel dungeon for infringing laws they did not
even know existed. He too was clad in black robes and bore a name given
to him in hate by the people: Daor, the Hireling.
As far away from these two black-clad councillors as he could get sat
someone known to Críonna; it was Altán, the Ranger who
had brought him to the city from Anórien where he had been found
by scouts of Gondor. He was a Ranger of Ithilien, descendent of the
Dúnedain who had lived in that southern land before they had
been forced out by Sauron's dark onslaught. Críonna's spirits
lifted when he saw him, for the Rangers of Ithilien spoke Elvish, and
he had conversed with Altán in the language of his upbringing as
journeyed to the city. He was a young man, with long fair hair reaching
to his shoulders and a sharp-featured face. He wore the green and brown
habit which enabled the Rangers to elude the enemy and melt into the
woodland when they forayed into Ithilien. He had a swift silent way of
moving, like a fox, and keen grey eyes. He was one of Faramir's men,
and had brought dispatches to Denethor which he had taken straight to
the Citadel the night before. There he had been told that the Steward
wanted him to remain to assist in the city's defences. Used to warfare
in the forest and eager to return to captain Faramir and his comrades,
this order had come like a blow to the young Ranger. He nodded to
Críonna but his fair face was sullen and unhappy.
At the head of the table sat Cianda, Boromir's second in command and
now lieutenant to Beregrond, Captain of the Guard. He was slumped in
the chair staring in front of him and did not appear to have heard what
was said. He was a tall thin man dressed in the black livery of the
Tower Guard. He was pale from lack of sleep and in his blue eyes there
was a dull defeated look. Críonna looked at him and saw one who
was dead in all but name. As if suddenly realising he was in charge he
looked up at Críonna and pushing a lock of black hair out of his
eyes he asked, "Who are you, Ranger, and how did you come to the City?"
"I am Críonna, a Ranger of the North. By many trials and
journeys I came into Rohan and was wounded at the battle of the Fords
of Isen..." there was an exclamation from Cág but Cianda waved
to Críonna to go on. "... I was taken from the battlefield by
Ents..." here he felt a sharp kick on his ankle from Dian and he
corrected himself hastily, "...by Elves...."
"Nonsense!" cried Cág, while Daor shook his head in disbelief.
"Everyone knows Elves take no interest in the affairs of men!"
Críonna looked at the councillor, his eyes dark. "Is that so?" he said in a low voice.
Cág glared at him, "Of course...."
At that Críonna threw aside his grey Elven cloak and put his
hand on the hilt of the bright sword given to him by Queen Galadriel.
The morning light streaming in through the high windows struck dull
gold from the Elven mail shirt. Críonna did not draw his sword,
but pushed the hilt down to turn the blade to the council table, to
show the Elven characters clearly engraved on the scabbard.
He said quietly, "This coat of mail I had from the Elves of
Lórien, and this sword too, when I lost my own in the
Andúin. But more than this, I and my whole company were saved by
the Lady of the Golden Wood." He let his cloak fall again. "You know
nothing about war, Councillor, and little about anything else, to speak
as you do of the Elves."
Cág stared speechlessly at him. The quill stopped scratching.
Cruach stifled a snigger and something like a smile spread over
Cianda's haunted face. He said in a friendly voice, "Do not be
offended, Ranger. Here in Minas Tirith we are beleaguered, and it is
hard sometimes to remember that there are those beyond our gates who
are not enemies. But it is not permitted to speak of the Battle of the
Ford, even if you were there...." At this Cianda's blue eyes twinkled
briefly, as if struck by the absurdity of the order, "So I will leave
it to Denethor himself to question you concerning the battle."
A gasp went round the table. Cág flapped his hands in protest, "It is for the Council to question suspects!"
"Suspects?" said Críonna, his voice rising.
Cianda made a final gesture with his hand, "You forget, Cág,
that King Théoden lost his son in that battle. I think Denethor
would prefer to hear any account of the death of a son himself, not
There was a strained silence. Cág glared at Cianda but said
nothing. Daor threw down his goose-feather quill and selected another,
licked the nib, rattled it in the inkpot and sat with the pen poised.
Críonna stared at the parchment and his heart sank: being
brought before the Steward, still grieving from the loss of his son, to
give an account of a battle he could barely recall was the last thing
As he pondered this Cianda said gently, "I have heard of Aonta's death, Dian, and I am truly grieved. But why are you here?"
Beside him Críonna heard Dian take a deep breath but before she
could say anything Cág snapped, "She is here to resume her suit
to join the Rangers. She has been refused by the Army Council before
and by the City Council too..." he turned his pale eyes to her and
shouted, "The answer is still no!"
Dian went white but before she could speak Cág said in a
sneering voice, "Why don't you join the Watch? We will let you do
At this Cruach sat up and gave Cág a warning look, "We take our
duties seriously, Councillor, but in any case, Dian is young and
skilled in arms. She does not want to guard the bread dole with a crowd
of fat old men. She wants to fight!"
At these words Cruach brought his fist down on the table and the inkpot
rattled. Cianda looked at Dian and his eyes blazed. Críonna
remembered Dian telling him that after the death of Boromir the officer
of the Tower Guard had requested to be allowed to go to the fighting
and had been refused.
Cianda said in a quiet voice, "We will soon be surrounded, our forces
driven back to the city walls. Then our very scullions will be pressed
to fight." He looked at Cág, "When our grand-dames are fighting
orcs off with kitchen spits, will you still object to women in the
Cág said nothing and Cianda went on, "Boromir saw her train once, he would have let her fight!"
"The prince is no longer here, what he said or did not say does not matter any more!"
Cianda looked as if he had been struck. His pale face went even paler.
Cág went on, "The only females on the battlefield are the crows
that devour the dead."
Dian retorted, "Then I am the Queen of Crows!"
Cág snorted and said, "Perhaps instead of weakening our army
with women we should ask why we are being constantly defeated. There is
not just cowardice I think, but also treachery in the ranks...."
He had no chance to speak more: Altán, who had been growing more
and more angry, suddenly threw himself across the council table and
seized Cág's throat. His long weatherbeaten fingers clamped
around the cowl and he would have strangled the councillor had Cruach
not taken his wrists and pulled him back. Strong as he was Altán
gave way before the older man's iron grip.
"Let him go!" said Cruach. "He is not worth it."
Cág stumbled backwards, rubbing his throat. "Young hothead! I
will have you in the Tower jail for that! Attacking a councillor!"
"No he wasn't," said Cruach. "He was only straightening your robe."
"It was a savage attack!" yelped Daor.
Altán was about to answer when their attention was taken by the
ring of a blade being drawn. Looking round they saw Cianda holding the
sword of an officer of the Guard of The White Tower. Without warning he
threw it down on the table. It slid along the polished wood, sending
the inkpot skittering and shooting off the edge, splattering Daor with
black ink. There was silence.
Then Cianda spoke in a voice of suppressed rage, "You will think,
Ranger of the North, that Sauron needs no orcs to defeat us, we are
defeating ourselves, fighting amongst each other. It was not so when
Boromir was here...but that day is gone." He turned to Altán and
said, "Go back to your comrades in Ithilien, Ranger. I only wish I
could be freed to go with you."
Joy and relief spread over Altán's face. Cianda looked at Dian
and said, "I accept your sword and your service, Dian. You can stay and
defend the city or you can go to the fighting with Altán: the
choice is yours...."
"I will go with Altán," said Dian, barely concealing her delight.
Cianda looked at Cág and said, "No scribe will tell the warriors
of Gondor what do do. On, my head be all that comes of this decision."
Cág's eyes glowed with anger. "Be assured it will, Cianda," he
replied, then turning to Dian, Altán and Críonna, he gave
them a courteous bow and said, "May you die with honour." Cianda rose
and nodded to Críonna, "Come with me to the Hall of the Steward,
Ranger. This meeting is at an end...."
The Power of Sorcery
When distance and the smoky haze over Isengard had swallowed up Marfach
and his two Entish guards Callanach turned with a sigh and walked up
the sloping ground to Théoden's camp. The King's guard of
horsemen had proceeded him and dismounted and unsaddled their horses,
throwing themselves down on the ground exhausted by their long journey
from Helm's Deep.
A silence fell when Callanach came up to the Rohirrim. They stared at
the young Ranger in the Elvish gear with curiosity and barely concealed
hostility. Callanach could see from their notched arms and torn chain
mail that they had fought in a great and desperate battle, and he saw
in their faces weariness and sorrow for friends they had lost. Sitting
on the ground while another warrior bound up his arm was
Íarnaí, the man whom Callanach had wounded protecting
Marfach. He raised his head when Callanach approached and said in a
voice loud enough to be heard by all the men,
"Well, here comes the little Dunlending!"
A bitter laugh ran round the crowd of warriors. Callanach felt anger
rise, but tried to push it down. Had he learned nothing from the Elves?
He waited till silence fell then said, "I am not a Dunlending; I am a
Ranger of the North...."
"You are a friend of the Dunlendings, of the vilest of all, the Red
Dragon...,"said another man and there was an ominous murmur of assent.
Callanach raised his voice, "He isn't a Dunlending, he is an Elf...."
At this a storm of mocking laughter rang out. Íarnaí
shouted above it, "He is a Dunlending! We have fought and hunted him
for many years...."
"Yes, and never caught him, nor defeated him' retorted Callanach. 'Because he is no mere Dunlending, but an Elf...."
Íarnaí got to his feet and strode over to Callanach. He
put his face close to the boy's and said in a low dangerous voice, "We
have seen the Elves, my lad. At Helm's Deep, fighting with us and dying
with us. You know little of Elves to call this accursed creature an
There was a loud ripple of assent among the men. The pale young man in
the Elven cloak and mail gazed round at the hostile warriors and saw
only resentment in every face. Was this how his service to King
Théoden was going to be?
"The King ordered you to give me a horse," he said coldly.
The Rohirrim stared at the boy for a moment then one got to his feet and asked bluntly, "Can you ride?"
"Yes," lied Callanach. He wished now he had paid more attention to his
father Feolcú when he had tried to teach him horsemanship: "A
Ranger must be able to fight on horseback...," he had said.
"Come with me, then," said the warrior, calling Callanach back from the past."The picket lines are this way."
As Callanach turned to follow the guard Íarnaí said to
him in a low voice, "Ride to war with us if you want, but whatever the
King commands you will never be one of us."
Once again Callanach gritted his teeth and did not reply, but then
Íarnaí turned and said to the Rohirrim, "We should help
him to choose a mount, friends. They don't know much about horses where
he comes from."
The men laughed and murmured agreement and they all got to their feet
and followed Callanach up the hill to where the horses were picketed in
lines on the level stony ground. Callanach sensed an ambush of some
kind but he knew he couldn't do anything about it.
After a few minutes they came to the picket lines and one of the
Rohirrim pointed out a string of horses and said to Callanach, "Those
are the spare mounts, choose from among them. Nothing too big and
strong, we can't help you if it bolts in front of the enemy."
There was stifled laughter and Callanach walked forward to the half
dozen horses tied to the picket. He tried to appear calm but his heart
was thumping; he knew nothing about horses. All he knew was that he
must not make a fool of himself here.
He forced himself to look at the beasts, examining them as best he
could. It was late afternoon and a weak spring sun fell through clouds
and shone on the glossy flanks of the animals. They were all bred of
the fine stock of the horses of Rohan, delicate fiery heads and large
dark eyes, round neat black hooves pawing the ground and ears flicking
forward as Callanach walked towards them. He laid a hand on the
nearest, a placid looking chestnut and laughter broke out behind him.
"He's too big for you, little Ranger!" Íarnaí walked
forward and said to him. "Let us help you choose! Here, this is well up
to your weight. It is a pony of the Haradrim, which should make you
feel at home. We rounded it up after the battle of the Ford. He is
small enough for you to manage...."
This time the laughter had a note of expectation in it and Callanach
sensed a trap, but he forced himself to examine the horse that was led
It was not like the horses of the Rohirrim; it was wiry and black and
had a long flowing tail and mane and a small fine head. It rolled its
eyes as they approached it and seemed to fear the Rohirrim as its
nostrils flared and it tugged at its lead rope when it was untied and
led over to Callanach. Only too anxious to be helpful the Rohirrim
placed a saddle and bridle on the horse. It was unwilling and pulled
away but eventually they had it done and handed Callanach the reins and
Callanach stepped up to the horse, his heart pounding. He tried to
remember what he had been taught in Lórien, but the Galadhrim
did not use horses in war and had given him no instruction in how to
manage them. All he remembered was something Haldir had said to him,
"Do not do as Men do, try to master a horse. Use him as your friend, or
your brother. Then he won't leave you flat on your back in the middle
of a battle."
All creatures responded to the Elves in strange understanding though,
so Callanach put his hand on the horse's neck and stroking it gently he
spoke to it in the language he had learned in Lothlórien.
As soon as he began to speak Elvish the horse's ears, laid back in
hostility, flicked forward and the large dark eyes ceased to show
white. It was almost as if the animal recognised the language, or
understood what was being said. Callanach raised a hand and stroked the
animal's neck, noticing how an irregular white patch on its forehead
resembled a star. He continued to speak Elvish and gradually he
gathered the reins into his hand, tossed them onto the horse's mane
then as carefully as he could he put a foot in the stirrup, too long
for one of his height, and swung himself up into the saddle.
The lean black horse laid back its ears and whinnied but Callanach kept
talking and it calmed down again. For a few moments Callanach sat still
in the saddle to allow the horse to get used to him then he touched his
heels to its flanks and it moved forward, round in a circle and on his
command it broke into a trot down the short slope and wheeled and
cantered back up again. Callanach drew up in front of
Íarnaí and the astonished Rohirrim. There was a moment's
silence then he said, "This one will do me well, my thanks for your
help in choosing it."
There was laughter, but Íarnaí's face was black as
thunder. One of the Rohirrim slapped him on the back and said, "Cheer
up, Íarnaí! That horse has thrown all of us, even you.
Fair is fair, the lad mastered him, he isn't as slow as he looks."
But Íarnaí shook off his comrade's hand and his face
blazing with anger he strode forward and reached up to grab Callanach
and pull him out of the saddle. But the black was startled by the
sudden approach of the man and sidling round it shot out a hoof and
caught him square in the chest and sent him sprawling backwards onto
No-one laughed this time and Callanach dismounted and went to help
Íarnaí up, but before he could the man, scarcely hindered
by his wounded arm, leaped to his feet and whipped out a long dagger.
Behind them the Rohirrim stood unmoving, as if in shock.
Íarnaí seized the front of Callanach's cloak and pulled
the boy forward off his feet. The tip of the dagger grazed his throat.
But the grey-green eyes gazed calmly at Íarnaí and
Callanach said, "Let me go, friend. I have no quarrel with you...."
"But I have with you...you little rat out of the North...,"
Íarnaí snarled, then hesitated. The young Ranger had made
no attempt to draw his sword or to defend himself. Íarnaí
realised he was almost a head taller than the lad and standing close to
him he saw Callanach's bone-thin face and his strange pallor. He seemed
suddenly unsure. He said, "They say your friend the Red Dragon is
protected by some sorcery, some spell that makes it impossible for him
to die, or to be killed. Are you protected by the same accursed
Callanach did not answer for a moment. He was aware of the men watching
intently, some with their hands on their sword hilts. He said in a low
voice, so as to be heard only by Íarnaí, "You cannot
frighten me, mortal. I have already died. By her power the Lady of the
Golden wood, Galadriel, brought me back to the land of the living...."
At these words Íarnaí let go his hold of Callanach and
stepped back quickly, a look of horror on his face. Even though the men
were all still watching he turned and hurried away, too frightened to
care about loss of face. Callanach went to follow him but was stopped
by a voice behind him,
"Is this how I am rewarded for giving you a chance?"
Callanach whirled round to see Snowmane standing behind him, King
Théoden in the saddle with a stern look on his face. His
bodyguard were around him, mounted and ready to move out. Callanach
stammered a reply but the King cut him off, "What do you mean by
terrifying my warriors?"
Callanach stared at Théoden and then noticed the twinkle in his
eye. The King said, "Anyone who can send a man running away with only a
word is safer on our side than on the other...."
The men laughed, and then the King laughed too. After a moment he grew
serious and walked Snowmane up to Callanach and leaned over to speak to
the boy. "My squires were all lost at Helm's Deep. It would please
me...," and he gestured towards the retreating Iarnaí,
"...whatever this oaf said, if you would take their place and serve me
at least until I reach Edoras."
"To serve you as a squire?" said Callanach, hardly able to believe it.
Théoden shook his head and said, "It is no easy task in time of war, but if you think you can do it...."
"Yes!" cried Callanach, and King Théoden smiled. He nodded to
the horse. "Do you want to keep this mount? I can order my guard to
find you something better." Callanach made a face and Théoden
laughed and said, "No tricks this time, I promise."
Callanach shook his head and said, "This one suits me well, I will keep
him. I will call him Réalt, Star, on account of this blaze, and
for the stars of the Elves...."