The Dragon and the Fox

by Varda


Chapter 42: The Silent People

A strange quiet had fallen on the city of Minas Tirith. Under the low black cloud the streets were almost silent, and the people stood in groups talking in hushed voices. Every face was grave, and some wept.

After he left Cruach at the Second Gate Críonna hurried from one level of the city to the next, towards the Citadel. Having been reared by Elves he had a keen sensitivity to a place and its people and he felt some great catastrophe had befallen the city, or was about to….

The sentries at the gates on each level did not challenge the tall Ranger in his Elven mail, and Críonna passed unhindered right to the Rangers’ barracks on the second highest level of the city. He walked along the deserted hallway hung with the banners and flags of Gondor, and entered the lofty Armoury, where the Rangers and Knights were assembled. Críonna had never seen Faramir before, and wondered if he would know him. But standing in front of his men, a tiny crop-haired page beside him holding his helm and occasionally brushing away a tear, was a slender fair-haired warrior clad in armour and with a grim, set face, and Críonna knew it was Faramir.

Críonna sidled into the Armoury, unnoticed by the men. The great hall was lit by a pale gleam of sunlight, the last light to fall as the great darkness of Mordor overspread the sky. It lit on the faded banners of Gondor that hung from the walls, and glinted on the long blade of the great Troll-lance over the stone fireplace, its haft inscribed with the runes of the dwarves of the Iron Hills who had made it….

Críonna studied Faramir closely; he was tall, although not as tall as his own lord Aragorn. Faramir's face wore a gentler expression, and he was plainly ill at ease in steel plate and iron helm. His appearance and bearing was noble, of a kind almost lost from the Earth, the race of Numenor. His dark grey eyes swept the company and his fair face was pale as death. His long tawny hair fell over the shining armour and even from the back of the hall Críonna could see beads of sweat on his brow. He began to speak to the host in a clear voice which despite all his efforts held the slightest of tremors…

‘Rangers and Soldiers of Gondor…’ he said, to utter silence in the hall.
‘We have received our orders from Denethor the High Steward; we are to attack and recapture the City of Osgiliath….’

Even Críonna gasped, and despite their restraint a murmur of dismay ran through the ranks of men. It was not a surprise; as soon as the order had been given by Denethor the news, carried by guard and attendant and kitchen scullion alike, had run through every level of the City like fire through dry grass. And yet it fell on their ears now like a death sentence. The Rangers among them who had just escaped from Osgiliath with their lives sighed and bowed their heads.

Looking at them, Faramir felt a grief worse than any wound taken in battle. All the Rangers present he had lived and fought with for many months in his beloved Ithilien, sharing their peril like brothers. Every face was the face of a friend. Even the men of the city guard were all known to him, their names, their families and their lineage. Now he must lead them out to their deaths. It was Faramir’s only consolation that at least he would be among the first to fall.

For a moment Faramir rebelled at his charge and his duty; his father grew every day more capricious and unheeding; no-one would blame him if he refused to obey this order. But Faramir quickly put away the thought. Boromir his brother would have done it, would have ridden into the very maw of a dragon for the sake of Gondor, and he could attempt nothing less. In any case, he thought bleakly, was it not better to fall bearing arms on the field than to die trapped behind the walls like a rat in a cage, or be burned alive when the orcs turned the Citadel into a pyre for the living and the dead…..?

Faramir dragged himself back to the present. He said in a loud clear voice;
‘Osgiliath is held by the orcs in great numbers; we must attack in force, riding swiftly….’
He wanted to give the men a blessing, or wish them good luck, but he could not find the words, so he drew his sword and holding it up where it caught the last gleam of sunlight he shouted;
‘For Gondor, for Gondor…!’

And the men, Rangers and soldiers alike, drew their swords in response and shouted back;
‘For Gondor, for Gondor!’

The assembly broke up then, and as they turned to go and prepare for battle, Críonna quickly made his way through the throng to Faramir, who was standing with his Rangers Tostach and Arracht.
‘Lord Faramir!’ he said.

Faramir turned and looked at him for a moment then said;
‘You must be the Ranger of the North who was brought to the city wounded…’
‘Yes, my lord. I am Críonna’ he replied.
The other Rangers stepped out of hearing then and Faramir studying Críonna’s Elven mail and sword said quietly;
‘You chose an evil time to come to the White City, Ranger. I regret I do not have any time now to spare you…..’
‘I do not have any time either…’ replied Críonna, and Faramir looked sharply at him, catching the hint of impatience in his voice. Críonna said quickly;
‘I seek your permission to ride with you and your company in the attack on Osgiliath.’

Faramir stared at him for a long moment, and Críonna could see his request had pained him. He looked about and as no-one was within earshot he said;
‘Do not ask my permission to go on a fool’s errand, Ranger, for that is what it is. When great ones fall into folly the people perish! If you ride with us you ride not to battle but to your grave, and for that you will have only the open field and such defilement as the orcs will offer your corpse, for there will be none of my folk left to bury you, our city is lost.’
Faramir fell silent, a look of despair on his face. Críonna said;
‘And yet you yourself ride to battle, and so do your men..’
Faramir shook his head and said quietly
‘That is where our allegiance lies.’ He looked Faramir up and down and said;
‘But you are not of Gondor. Why should you volunteer for such a deadly mission?’
‘I too owe allegiance, to you my lord’ said Críonna. Faramir looked curiously at him and he went on;
‘I am a Ranger of Arnor, and my lord in the North is Aragorn, son of Arathorn, of the line of Elendil. As I am separated from him by many leagues I owe my service to his Steward. Let me ride with you, Faramir….’ A gleam of a smile lit up Críonna’s face, his Elf-bred dislike of despair.
‘Who knows but that I might do you some service before this day is over?’

Faramir went to reply but stopped. Críonna’s words had reminded him of his meeting with Frodo. The hobbit had said the same thing to him;
‘I have a task yet to perform, Faramir, before I too am slain. Do not hinder me!’ Faramir knew he could not deny Críonna what he had been unable to deny Frodo, the right to do his duty….but he said;
‘Aragorn?’

Críonna nodded, and Faramir remembered what Frodo had told him of the company of nine companions that had set out from Rivendell, with Boromir his brother one of them. One of the company had been this Aragorn, and Frodo had not concealed from Faramir that Aragorn, not Boromir, had been their leader. Faramir knew his brother would have only yielded such a place to one whose right and lineage he did not dispute.

Faramir wanted to ask Críonna more of Aragorn; for some reason a spark of hope, like a tiny flame on a dark night, sprang up in Faramir’s heart at the name. But just then Tostach came up to call him away. Before he left him, he said to Críonna;
‘Your Lord Aragorn should have come to Minas Tirith ere now. If he comes hereafter he is like to find us a silent people, for we will all be dead.’ He smiled sadly and added;
‘I grant your request, Ranger. You have my permission to ride with us this day. For as long as I have left to live, I accept your allegiance….’

The men filed out of the hall after their leader. On the way the Rangers set their great yew bows in the weapon racks, for they would not be able to use them on horseback. Carefully they unstrung the bows and stowed the bowstrings in their belt pouches, as if they were sure they would come back, when every man knew it was likely he never would return. Instead of their bows the Rangers selected from the racks long cavalry spears, with a corded handgrip halfway along the shaft and a looped wrist strap and long leaf-shaped blade. With their spear tips glinting in the dull light they passed out down to the parade yard where the grooms stood in sombre silence with the horses saddled and ready.

There were mounts to spare, for many of the knights had not come back from Osgiliath and their horses were still stabled in Minas Tirith. As the soldiers sought their horses, Críonna looked about for a mount and his eye fell on a tall restive grey. He approached it and the groom holding its bridle said;
‘My lord, this horse belonged to Madril, who fell in Osgiliath. The beast is headstrong and hard to manage, and only Madril could control him….’
Críonna nodded but took the reins from the man’s hand.
‘What is his name?’ he asked.
‘Brú’ the groom replied. The name meant Striker but the horse did not answer to it, but rolled its eyes and backed away. Críonna spoke soothing words in Elvish and laid a hand on its neck, seeking in the way of the Elves to calm the animal. After some moments it ceased to lay back its ears and stood still, looking at Críonna. The groom said;
‘I never thought any but Madril could master him, my lord….’
‘I have not mastered him.’ replied Críonna. ‘He has consented to bear me, to honour and avenge his fallen lord ….’

The Knights first and then the Rangers passed under the arched gateway of the parade yard and down the narrow streets, no word being spoken except to encourage their mounts. Críonna guided Brú along in their wake. Word had spread through the city of their departure and the ways were crowded with townspeople, all silent and sorrowful. Those who had friends or menfolk among the mounted soldiers turned aside to weep. Women walked alongside the horses and handed up to the riders spring flowers gathered on those terraces of the city that faced South. A dark-haired girl in the habit of a serving maid held up to Críonna a white rose, and he took it and put it inside his Elven mail and smiled back at her tear-streaked face.

Riding ahead Faramir led his men across the square behind the great gate, past the mounted statue of Isildur. As he did so Críonna saw a figure cloaked in white force his way through the crowd thronging the street and speak urgently to Faramir. Críonna had seen that figure before, in Rivendell….he gazed with wonder at Gandalf, but Faramir, his face pale and set like stone, replied abruptly to the wizard, who stepped back, a look of dismay on his face.

Then Faramir passed through the great gates and the long file of horsemen followed him. A hot smoke-filled breeze made their pennants flutter as they rode out onto the white dusty causeway that ran Eastward across the Pelennor. Then the great gate creaked shut, and they were seen no more….