The Dragon and the Fox

by Varda

Chapter 6: Treason has Sold Us

"We are pursued!" said Dian in a fierce whisper.

"That cannot be!" replied Altán. "This is a secret track!"

"Secret or not, something is following us...."

A yellow half moon rose over the black teeth of the Eastern mountains and shone down on abroken hilly country scattered with copses and solitary trees. Among the groves of alder and ash ran a hidden path used by the Rangers passing from Minas Tirith out of the Pelennor southwards to Ithilien. No-one had ever been attacked on this route before. Until now.

Altán stopped in a stand of birches and standing as motionless as the slender silver trees he gazed back down the track. There was no wind, not a leaf was stirring. The land rose and fell in ridges, and on a hill opposite moonlight suddenly glinted on metal. Altán felt a hand of fear clutch his heart. The girl was right: something was following them.

Altán did not waste time wondering how Dian had seen them. In the two nights they had journeyed from Minas Tirith he had realised that she was as wary and watchful and as untiring as he was himself, and among the Rangers he had the nickname "The Fox." Now something had drawn her attention to look back, and she had seen the enemy following them.

A wrack of clouds obscured the moon and the land went dark. Altán fingered his sword, his brown and green Rangers' habit making him almost indistinguishable from the forest around him. Dian remained still, gazing intently at the ridge, waiting for the sky to clear.

Suddenly the moon burst out, flooding the land with light, and both Altán and Dian gasped. Silhouetted against the bright sky stood an orc, wearing a horned and crested helmet in the depths of which his yellow eyes glowed like a cat. The moonlight shone on his armour, black greaves on his long arms and legs, with spikes mounted at elbow and shoulder. A great curved black bow was slung on his back and even the detail on his breastplate was clear in the ghostly light, a great eye deeply embossed and painted red. In an instant he saw that he was detected and raising a curved scimitar he let out a long animal wail and over the brow of the ridge poured a host of orcs similarly armed and clad, rushing after the Rangers with a long snarling cry of hate.

"Fly, Dian! Fly for your life!"' shouted Altán, himself throwing away his pack and turning to run.

"But how did they find us?" cried Dian. How quiet and careful they had been! No orc could have matched their woodcraft. A black thought seized Dian's heart. "We have been betrayed, Altán!' she shouted.

"Do not think of that now!" he called over his shoulder. "Run!"

* * *

Out of the moonlit sky they came, gliding on black wings. No birds fly at night but the ravens of Mordor. Over the mountains they flew, silent and purposeful, and wheeled far above the silent city of Minas Tirith. Then, in narrowing circles they descended, lower and lower.

Cág paced the dusty weed-grown courtyard impatiently. Soon it would be dawn, would He not send His messengers tonight? Perhaps he was angry...fear crept over Cág's heart. If he had displeased the Dark One, he might be betrayed to the City that he had sought to betray. He would hang from a gibbet, perhaps the same one he had condemned others to dien upon. Others who had done nothing wrong....

A rush of wings comforted him. Great black shapes wheeled in the dark and settled on the ground in the fitful gleam of the torch. The raven stood fearlessly on the moon-blanched stones, its wings gleaming blue-black in the yellow light. Then it strode forward to Cág's feet as if it were a man. Despite himself Cág took a step backward; it was said the Dark Lord could take many forms....

He collected his wits and drew together his thoughts. He called to mind the Army Council meeting of that morning. The moonlit court grew dim. In his head a voice, not his own, not even human, said, "Tell me Everything...."

"They will take the River Path, and they will be yours, my Lord."

* * *

Dian also threw away her pack and ran after Altán. The Ranger was lean and wiry and very swift, but the girl, slightly taller, could run just as fast. The path wound ahead through the trees and in the bright moonlight it seemed as clear as a highway, but the Rangers were not tempted to seek the hidden land on either side: orcs never broke cover in pursuit unless they had already begun to outflank their quarry and the dark copses would conceal orc archers. Their only hope lay in flight, but as they ran, not pausing to look back, Dian knew in her heart the enemy were gaining on them. Her keen hearing caught the crashing and screaming and she could tell it was growing closer. Even Rangers could not outrun orcs on the trail, their pace forced by sorcery and fear of their masters' whips. As they crested a ridge a wild cry of hate sounded behind them, the hunt was closing in.

Yet from the ridge they could see the Anduin, broad and gleaming silver in the moonlight. Dian knew that if they could win the waterside they might be safe, as Captain Faramir's men yet held the fords and riverbank. But even in a straight line they were miles away still. Dian risked a glance over her shoulder: a dense pack of black-armoured shapes flowed down the hill behind them, the moonlight glinting on blade and armour. They would never make it....

"Don't look back!" said Altán and Dian threw herself after the Ranger. As she did so an arrow rattled in the branches over her head: the orcs had outflanked them and their archers had found their range. Dian bent her head and ran with her eyes on the ground. This was no time to stumble.

Out of a sheltering grove of tall beech trees they fled across a flat boggy patch of ground, splashed across a stream then found themselves at the top of a steep scree slope. Pausing only a heartbeat at the top, outlined against the moon, Dian heard the sickening thump of an arrow into flesh. She looked around and saw Altán fallen on the ground, his face white as the moonlight, a black-feathered shaft sunk in his back.

Dian ran back and took him under the arm and began to haul him forward.

"No, no!" he gasped. "Go on, Dian. I have taken my death..."

"Be quiet," she cried, dragging him along with her. Arrows were landing all around them now, hissing into the grass like deadly hail. One caught in her cloak. In her mind were the words "Rangers never leave their wounded..."

But Altán was limp and heavy in her grasp. His head had fallen forward and his breathing was harsh and uneven. They were at the brink of the cliff now. Dian murmured, "I am sorry, Altán...." and leaning over she grasped the black arrow in both hands and snapped off the shaft. Altán cried out in pain but before he could recover Dian had taken a firm grip of his Ranger's uniform and hauling him after her she threw herself over the edge and they both fell and slithered the length of the slope in a shower of stones and uprooted grass. At the bottom Dian leaped to her feet and dragged Altán groaning across the heath to the shelter of a grove of willows. A sudden night-wind stirred the long trailing branches and for a moment there was silence. Small pebbles followed their flight down the slope, but there was no sign of their pursuers.

Dian pulled Altán into the trees and laid him as gently as she could at the foot of a willow. He said in a weak voice. "Leave me, Dian. The river is not far, go on!"

Dian shook her head and whispered, "No!" To herself she thought, "I did not fight to become a Ranger just to leave my comrade to be butchered."

Altán closed his eyes and between gasps Dian heard him praying in Elvish but she could not understand the words as she did not speak the Elves' tongue but prayers were far from her mind as she reached over, laid a comforting hand on his shoulder then took the arrows from his quiver and crept to the edge of the copse and lying flat she gazed up at the top of the ridge and along it to the trees. Quietly she pulled her bow forward and then leaning against the trunk of a willow she drew Aonta's sword and laid it on the bracken at her feet then took the arrows and stuck them in the ground and set one to the bowstring and drew the bow. Looking down she noticed her hands were steady, without even a tremor....

At that moment a head was cautiously lifted above the ridge. The orcs were wary. Rangers, even wounded, were dangerous quarry. They sensed a trap. Hoping the bow would not creak Dian drew the bowstring to her cheek in the manner of the Galadhrim had she but known it and looked along the arrow at the orc head. That must be their tracker, she thought, for the head wore no helmet. Against the starlit sky it was black and misshapen and its knotted dreadlocks streamed out in the night breeze. Two yellow orbs glowed as it sniffed and peered.

"Don't be shy!" breathed Dian to herself. "Well have you served your lord. Now come and taste your reward...."