The Dragon and the Fox

by Varda


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 they
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, " 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 from you."

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 he wanted.

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 that...."

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 army?"

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 Elf!"

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 forward.

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 stood back.

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 the ground.

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 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 sorcery, Dunlending?"

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...."