The Dragon and the Fox

by Varda


Chapter 66: The Cat's Ladder

When Fionn woke up he found himself lying in the doorway of a street in the second level of the city, called the Street of Amber. In times of peace it housed the shops of artisans who worked semi-precious stones, garnet and amethyst and especially amber which was greatly prized in Gondor, and often set in the pommels of the knights’ swords or setin silver for a lady’s circlet or necklace.

But the jewellers had long abandoned the Street of Amber, carting off their precious stones and specialist tools, taking them in long caravans to the safe cities of the south. The shops were all empty and boarded up, and already many had caught fire, a fierce crackling spreading across the blue roof tiles and thick black smoke billowing along the narrow street.

Fionn looked up. It was morning, but the sky was dark with smoke and trails of sparks and fragments of burning wood and straw; Minas Tirith was burning!

He struggled to get to his feet, trying to remember how he had come there. When Faramir had been taken up to the Citadel he had been brushed aside and knocked to the ground, no-one noticing a small boy in the confusion and panic. He must have crawled to this quiet street and slept here since. He looked round in dismay; the city was being destroyed, and he had been asleep! He must return to the Citadel…

But when he tried to walk he found his legs would not obey him, and his side ached and his head swam. He put a hand to his tunic and felt his wound was still seeping blood.
‘I must get back to the Citadel! I must find out if Faramir is alive or not!’ he thought, and began to pick his way painfully down the street, one hand on the wall to steady himself.

Above the sound of burning he could hear the sound of fighting, but it was far away, a confused din of shouting and battering. But suddenly a sound came to him and he knew it was from close at hand; it grew louder. Running feet, mailed feet. Someone was coming this way, a large body of armed ….what? Fionn gripped the wall and thought desperately. Was it orcs? Or Haradrim? Somehow he knew it was not soldiers of Gondor. The sound was of armed men but a rabble, charging headlong rather than marching, and as the sound grew Fionn could make out fierce battle cries, but not in his own tongue.

Soon the enemy would turn the corner and see him. Fionn pushed himself away from the wall and drew his page’s sword. The glint of steel in the light of the fires gave him some small courage, but he knew he stood no chance.
‘Well, then’ he thought grimly; ‘For Gondor, and Faramir!’

With a thunder of armed feet the horde circled the corner and poured up the narrow street. ‘Easterlings!’ thoughtFionn to himself.

They were in battle array, but ragged from fighting and their gilded bronze armour was dented and blackened and smeared with blood. They ran as if possessed by furies, holding out their long curved pikes in front of them and yelling their strange war cries.

Fionn took a tight hold on his little sword and awaited their onslaught. Up the street they ran, the sound of their charge deafening in the narrow space. When they were almost upon him and he could see their bloodshot eyes through the visors of their helms, he held out his sword and cried;
‘For Gondor!’ and braced himself for their blows.

But they never fell. When the Easterlings reached him, they parted and continued running, as if they could not see him. The breeze of their passing fanned his cheek and he held his breath, but not one struck him or even looked at him. He was almost deafened by their passing, but when a seemingly endless time had elapsed, they had gone, and he was still alive….

But not all of them had gone. Running with a limp, at the rear of the cohort, came a great Easterling captain, his red cloak torn and sullied with dust and ash. He bore a long curved sword in his hand and he was wounded, dragging his leg which glistened with blood. When he came abreast of Fionn he looked down at him and with an angry word which the boy did not understand he lunged at him, seized his cloak in his armoured fist and brought the scimitar down in a long whispering arc to behead the little squire.

Fionn saw the blade glint like lightning on a stormy night and closed his eyes. But then there came a thump, and a snarl, and something struck him but it was not a sword. The lad opened his eyes in time to see the Easterling topple forward onto him, glancing off his shoulder and falling flat on the litter-strewn ground with a dull thud. From his neck stuck out a long arrow, fletched with white swan’s feathers and made of silver-grey wood, such wood as Fionn had never seen before….

He looked round and there, at the end of the street, clad in shimmering mail of pale gold with a cloak of forest green and holding a great bow of red wood inlaid with golden leaves, was an Elf.

Fionn stared, wondering if he was still asleep and dreaming. He had never seen one, but even so he knew this could be nothing but an Elf. Notching another long silver-grey arrow to his great bow the figure approached up the street with swift, silent strides, and Fionn saw he had no helm but over his shoulder was a gilded scabbard holding a long curved sword. The Elf walked up to him with his bow still raised and Fionn saw that he had long black hair which lay on his shoulders dark as shadows under yew, and his face was pale and fair and stern, his eyes fierce and roving the empty street for enemies. On his brow was a silver circlet with a single diamond of blue-white hue, and when he saw no more foes he looked down at Fionn with an expression of indifference and said carelessly over his shoulder;
‘All the men of Minas Tirith must be dead, for they are sending out their children to fight!’

Weak as he was Fionn’s pride was stung;
‘I am not a child!’ he replied indignantly. ‘I am a soldier of Gondor and squire to Lord Faramir….’

Dearfa the Elf raised an eyebrow in surprise and asked quietly;
‘Well, where is this Lord Faramir?’

Fionn remembered how Faramir had been brought into the city wounded and close to death, and despite himself tears filled his eyes and he could not speak. The Elf was staring at him, but then someone spoke at Fionn’s side;
‘You are a guard of the Citadel, by your uniform; permit us to pass into your city, soldier of Gondor, for we know not the passwords!’

Fionn looked round and saw a lean, dark-haired man dressed almost the same as a Ranger of Ithilien in a green-grey cloak caught with a steel star brooch, but he also wore a hauberk of bright mail akin to that of his Elven companion. He was only shoulder-height to the Elf with startling blue eyes in a lined, weatherbeaten face. He got down on one knee to bring himself level with Fionn and asked gently;
‘What is your name?’

‘Fionn’ said the boy, his voice cracking.

Up the street now came a body of warriors, and Fionn saw that some were men and some were Elves. The men were all clad as Rangers, tall and dark-haired and bearing great swords and wearing green-grey cloaks. They showed all the marks of battle, torn clothes and dented mail and sweat- and soot-streaked faces. They stopped and rested alongside the Elves in their golden mail, leaning on their long curved swords. Many of the Elves wore circlets of silver or mithril and their eyes shone brightly in the dim street, like winter stars. Fionn thought that on them there was a light such as he had never seen on any living men, in Minas Tirith or afar.

‘Well, Fionn..’ said the Ranger. ‘I am Seolta, and this is the Black Company, Rangers of Arnor. These Elves who fight with us are of Lothlórien, the Galadhrim…’

Fionn could only stare; Lothlórien! Surely he was dreaming, and had strayed into a legend…but then one of the Elves, fair-haired and of less stern features than the others but with a regal bearing and a red cloak that marked him out as leader, stepped up to Seolta and said;
‘Could he guide us to the Citadel? We have lost too many blundering about in this warren of alleys….’

Seolta looked at Rosc and nodded agreement. The Black Company and the Galadhrim had come late to the battle; the Rohirrim were already engaged upon the Pelennor and the Mumakil unleashed. Rosc and Seolta decided to avoid the carnage on the plain, for they had no saddles, shields or spears and were poorly equipped for cavalry warfare. They had galloped straight to the city Gates, and fought their way in. But there was no sign of the defenders, who had retreated to the upper levels. The streets were clogged with the carcasses of trolls, wargs and orcs, and every turning was an ambush. They had lost two Rangers and three Elves already….

Seolta put his hand on Fionn’s shoulder and said to him;
‘I can see from your tunic you are a soldier of the White Tower, Fionn. We have need of a canny guide to bring us to the Citadel. It is a task for a warrior of Gondor only. Can you take us?’

The Black Company had gathered round, all looking at the small boy with the spiky halo of cropped fair hair and the stained and rumpled livery of the White Tower. Fionn stared back, in awe to see such great warriors, the stern dark-cloaked Rangers and the bright Elves with their fearsome bows, come to the aid of his city at last…he went to reply but his voice failed. He tried to sheath his sword but his hands shook and a tear fell from the end of his nose. He rubbed it away in annoyance. Rosc saw, with his keen Elvish sight, the blood on his tunic and nudged Seolta, whose face darkened. He was about to speak when Fionn found his voice at last and said;

‘There is a secret staircase, my lords, made when the city was built. It is hard to find, so an enemy can’t use it, even when they pass it by. It is steep and so narrow only one can go up it at a time. It passes through the walls and leads right to the Citadel. It is called the Cat’s Ladder.’

Rosc smiled at the boy and said;
‘Fionn, my name is Rosc, and to be truthful with you I am not a warrior…’
Fionn looked at his curved Elven sword and bright mail with a frown of doubt. Rosc smiled and went on;
‘I am in fact a harpist, and would prefer to sing rather than fight…’
Fionn’s face clouded with disappointment. Rosc laughed and went on;
‘But I am leader of these warrior Galadhrim, and if you say this will bring us to the White Tower, I will follow you with all my Elves, for you wear the White Tree and the Stars, and I deem you are a soldier of great honour…’

The little boy coloured but Seolta could see he was pleased. Fionn bowed and replied;
‘Thank you, Lord Elf! Follow me and you will be brought safely to the Citadel…'

Fionn turned and hurried up the street, followed by the Black Company. Seolta looked at the boy with a worried frown; he could see the glisten of fever on the lad’s face and the dried blood on his tunic. Rosc said to him in a low voice;
'Every soldier we have found has been a dead one, and this little warrior is not far from death either. You better hope, Ranger, that there is someone left to save in the upper levels when we get there....'
Seolta nodded grimly and followed Fionn...

The boy ran on till he stood in a tiny square on the second level. There was abandoned plunder strewn about, but no dead; the fighting had passed this quiet corner by. The little pool, the Fountain of the Doves, was dry and full of leaves, but Fionn led the Company to a short flight of steps behind it. They ran up between two houses and were closed off, as it seemed, by an iron gate. Fionn climbed up to it and opened the gate and walked along a narrow slipway which ended in a stone stair. He turned to them and said;
‘This is the Cat’s Ladder. It leads by tunnel through the seven walls to the Citadel and was made to by-pass the gates in time of war….’

Dearfa leaned over Fionn’s shoulder and peered up the stairs. He gasped.
‘The boy is right! It leads all the way up to the Seventh level …’
‘Such was the skill of the Numenorean builders of Minas Tirith’ said Téagar the giant Ranger. He looked round at the Elves and added;
‘We were then as close to your kind, the Elves, as ever mortal men were….’

Fionn started up the stairs, trying to ignore the burning pain in his side and his blurred sight. Seolta looked anxiously at him. Dearfa announced solemnly;
‘So much that it good in the history of men is owed to the craft of Elves…’
‘In that case…’ said Seolta cheerfully, bowing and pointing to the sheer stone staircase;
‘The Elves can lead the way…’