The Dragon and the Fox

by Varda

Chapter 86: Isildur and Anarion

When Liofa and Marfach left the Houses of Healing they made their way down through the Citadel and into the narrow, crowded streets of Minas Tirith. Liofa still wore the green, gold-embroidered cloak of the royal guard of the King of Rohan, and in the mass of soldiers and townspeople there were many other green and gold cloaks, so despite his Elvish looks he passed unnoticed. But there was no-one else like Marfach, so he pulled up the hood of his cloak and walked alongside Liofa hidden from the gaze of passers-by as they made their way to the lowest level of Minas Tirith, and its front gate.

The city was overflowing with the survivors of two armies, that of Gondor and Rohan, as well as the allies who had come at the last moment to aid them in battle. Aragorn’s Rangers from the North and blue-cloaked warriors from Dol Amroth rubbed shoulders with the Rohirrim, with Faramir’s Rangers from Ithilien and with the black-robed City Guard in the cluttered streets. Many of the population too thronged the ways, made homeless by fires started by the fireballs hurled into it by the enemy catapults, and other missiles had knocked down buildings and blocked streets.

Through all this confusion Marfach made his way without pausing. He pushed through the crowds, although when people looked round and saw him, they quickly gave him way. Liofa followed in silence, his head down, wondering miserably when he would ever see his friends in the Black Company again, or Callanach. He wondered also if the young Ranger would try to follow him, then concluded bitterly that Callanach would just think Liofa had deserted him, and that their friendship was at an end. He dared not think what lay in store for him in the company of Marfach, but that bothered him less than losing the friendship of Callanach.

At the city gate the sentries stopped them.
‘Halt’ cried a young lieutenant in the black cloak of the City Guard. He looked as if he had only just been promoted, and such was the loss of life among the city garrison that his predecessor had probably been struck down when the Gate was stormed during the battle. The young lieutenant took his new responsibilities seriously.
‘None can go out or in without the written permission of the acting Steward, Prince Imrahil, or without knowing the password….’

Marfach pushed back the hood of his cloak and turned his face to the lieutenant. Seeing his red eyes and long dreadlocked hair, the man was taken aback, but he gathered his wits and said in an even more insistent voice;
‘You will not go any further without permission; the spies of the Enemy are everywhere….’

‘….and you look just like spies…’ his voice suggested, but he did not say it. Liofa stood by in silence. He half hoped they would be denied permission to leave Minas Tirith. Then he would get to see Callanach again. But Marfach was much too clever to be defeated by a password.

He stepped aside from the crowd milling about in the Front Square, bearing wood and stone for the repair of the damaged Front Gate, and taking away slain orcs and debris that was impeding passage through the colonnade up into the city. Marfach smiled and drew a long breath, and fixed his red eyes on the lieutenant.

For some moments he held the man’s gaze. The lieutenant for his part just stared back, seeming baffled by the appearance of the stranger, but then Minas Tirith was this day full of strange people, so what difference did one more make? There were Elves in the city now, and maybe this was just another elf? In fact, why had he stopped this person at all? In any case, he knew the password, he had just told him what it was; Elendil.

‘Very well, you may go through the Gate and leave the city….’ said the lieutenant, stepping back from Marfach as if not anxious to stand too close to him.
‘..and the next time say the password right away, and don’t be wasting our time. We have far too much to do at the moment..’

And waving the two on with an irritable gesture, the lieutenant of the Guard let Marfach and Liofa pass out of the city of Minas Tirith, and vanish swiftly among the smoke-wreathed ruin of the battlefield of the Pelennor beyond.

As these two passed under the battered arch of the Front Gate, past the magnificent wooden and bronze doors, now lying smashed and burned on the ground, Aragorn was walking slowly and thoughtfully up a narrow, winding staircase in the Citadel, seven sheer levels of the City above the plain of the Pelennor.

The stair was of bare stone, and lit only by small openings in the wall, glazed with horn. There was thick dust on the steps, and it made his footsteps silent, so that he felt like a phantom wandering a part of Minas Tirith that no living man had visited since the days of the Kings. But behind him, grunting and wheezing, there came Gimli, reassuring him that he was indeed still in the land of the living…..

‘How many more blasted stairs are there to this famous Tiring Chamber?’ grumbled the Dwarf, pausing for breath. ‘….and will it be worth the climb when we get there?’
‘Peace, Gimli…’ said Legolas, who was ascending just behind the Dwarf, although with much less noise and effort.
‘….there has been no king in Gondor for many ages, and only the king may enter this chamber. So it has not been visited for a very long time…’
Well is there any good reason for visiting it now?’ protested the Dwarf.

The reply to this question came echoing from out of sight below on the winding stair. It was Gandalf’s voice.
‘There is a good reason, Master Dwarf….’ replied the Wizard. ‘….and it comes from a good idea; that a King should dress as a King, and at the top of this staircase, if we ever reach it, is the chamber where the Kings of Gondor of old dressed themselves for events of state….and donned their arms and armour for war.’

The last word was spoken with sombre emphasis, and Gimli snorted and fell silent. All four continued the ascent thinking then only of what lay ahead, and Aragorn’s resolution to ride to war against Mordor; to draw Sauron out, and to give Frodo one last chance….

‘A trap must be baited…’ Aragorn had said to his doubting and unhappy band of supporters. ‘…and the bait must be dressed to look like a king..’

At last they reached the end of the long spiral stair. They found themselves on a wide stone platform, and to their right stretched a long, dim gallery. It had been lit when in use before by torches in sconces along the walls. But it was long since any torch had been lit in this part of the Citadel. To dispel the gloom, Gandalf passed a hand over the top of his staff, which at once made a noise like a whisper and gave forth a blue-white glow that illuminated a great, iron-studded door. Over the archway above it was a plaque of stone on which had been sculpted the tree and stars, and above that a crown. When all four had reached the top of the steps, Gandalf took from his belt a long iron key, and placing it in the lock he twisted it and the door, strangely for something that had stood unopened for so long, swung open without even a creak.

Aragorn raised his eyebrows in surprise. Gandalf tilted his staff to light the room inside and said;
‘It is not true to say that no-one has entered here since the time of the Kings; at regular intervals the arms and articles here at one time used to be taken out, examined, mended and cleaned….’

Then Gandalf sighed
‘…but from some time late in the rule of Denethor, all artefacts pertaining to kingship were hidden from the people, as if to make them forget about the hope that the King would return. If this was done from despair, or from some darker hope of Denethor that he might usurp the powers of kingship, I know not. He is gone, and any chance that we might find out the truth of many things that befell in Gondor in the last days before his death is gone too. Enough it is for us to know that he held his Stewardship with courage and honour for many years, and we will not speak of any fault he might have had in his last days. War, it has to be said, changes many people, and the arm of Sauron is long….’

‘Let us indeed not speak of it!’ interrupted Aragorn with a shake of his head. ‘Denethor was a great lord, scarcely less in lineage than I am myself, and greatly more experienced in leadership than I am….’
‘That I will never believe…’ muttered Gimli in a loud undertone. Aragorn did not reply, but smiled to himself, and stepped inside the chamber.

The turret room the wizard entered was hexagonal in shape, spacious and with a high, panelled ceiling from which hung a great brass and silver lamp.

Stepping forward into the centre of the room, which had a floor of grey and white marble, Gandalf touched his staff to the lamp, and at once the entire chamber was filled with a warm, golden light. Gimli gave a cry of surprise, and even Legolas, who was used to the craftsmanship of Elves and so not easily impressed, smiled with admiration of the sheer delicacy and beauty of the pierced screens of wood and silver and inlaid stones with which the chamber was lined.

The bare stone walls of the Tiring Room were all covered with these marvellously decorated wooden screens, and one particularly fine one divided part of the room from the rest, and in the screen was a small door with a silver lock. Gandalf produced another key, this time of silver, and inserted it in this lock. Before he turned it he took a deep breath and glanced at his companions.

‘Remember..’ he said. ‘…no man has worn these garments, nor this armour, since the time of Isildur, and for some items kept here, from long before that.’

Aragorn nodded, his face solemn.
‘But how did they come here, Gandalf ?’ asked Gimli, peering around the shadowy chamber.
‘…for I had heard, as all the Dwarves have, that many of the kings of Gondor of old perished in battle, and oft their bodies were not recovered…’
‘That is true..’ said Gandalf. ‘…but the trappings of kingship are often retrieved when the king himself is lost and kept as things sacred, for the time that a king might return to rule again. So great is the honour accorded to a king….’

And Gandalf shot a glance at Aragorn, thinking to get some reply. But Aragorn merely gazed at the little door as if preparing himself for what he would find beyond it.

Gandalf opened it and stepped inside the small ante-chamber, and raised his staff aloft to add its white-blue light to that of the great hanging lamp. By the combined radiance of both Aragorn saw what at first with startled eyes he thought was the figure of King Isildur dressed in armour standing in the small tiring room. Then, when he overcame his surprise and moved closer, he saw that it was in fact a stand on which was the armour that the King had worn in battle. On top, on a model head that looked at the four companions with sightless eye-sockets, was a helm which had a crown of silver and gold embossed on it. The crown had a decoration of seabirds’ feathers over the brow and worked in the silver band was a design of stars and a spreading, leafy tree.

Despite himself Aragorn breathed the words;
‘The tree in that land far beyond the Western sea…..oh that such a world had never vanished! And that I was never destined to walk this one, and now, it seems, to try to save it….’

Gandalf turned to Aragorn and said;
‘Great evil often exists beside great beauty and yes, even alongside great goodness. Much has been lost, Aragorn, but much still remains to be saved, and even more can be restored again to the world or new things created to take its place…..’
‘The king who wore this crowned helm failed, Dunedain….’ said Legolas. ‘but your destiny is not his! Much will indeed be lost, but if it is ordained that you will be too, then the fate of this Elf will be the fate of the last of the Kings of Gondor….’
‘And the fate of this Dwarf too!’ grunted Gimli. ‘…but at least tell me what ye all are talking about first!’

At this Gandalf laughed and slapped Gimli on the shoulder.
‘Master Dwarf, I am very glad you are with us; you stop us becoming too portentous for our own good. The reason for our doom-laden thoughts is that this is the armour of the last king of Gondor, Isildur….’

‘Isildur!’ exclaimed Gimli, starting forward and beginning an expert examination of the fine, gilded mail and armour plates inlaid with silver and brass. He ran a calloused thumb over the greaves and arm vambraces.
‘Fine, very fine!’ he murmured approvingly. ‘ I think I detect the workmanship of my cousins of Erebor….but how did this armour come here, and in such unscathed condition? I always thought that Isildur perished in the waters of the River Anduin, slain by the arrows of orcs?’

‘That he did….’ said Gandalf sadly. ‘..but he was riding North at the time, and was not expecting a great battle, merely some skirmishing. Perhaps he trusted to the Ring to preserve him, and if so, he was sorely misled by it. He did not have on him his armour of state, which is what this is. When he was ambushed by orcs he put on the Ring in order to vanish and escape, but it slipped off his hand, and so Isildur was seen by his enemies and shot with arrows. He went to his death, and to the bottom of the river Anduin, clad in a soldier’s plain mail. Not enough to stop the arrow-heads of orcs, but then, this probably would not either, in the same circumstances….’

Gimli fingered the mail and shook his head.
‘I don’t know about that…’ he said. ‘…if anything can stop an arrowhead, it would be this mail. Look how each ring is sealed and jointed by hand, each one a work in itself….’

Legolas laughed.
‘You have found the heart of a Dwarf…’ he said to Gandalf ‘..always in love with cold metal and unyielding stone….’
‘Just as yours is in love with slimy undergrowth and murderous trees….’ said Gimli darkly. But Legolas just smiled and looked at the ceiling, and was not to be drawn into an argument.

‘Was his body ever found?’ asked Aragorn sombrely, not taking his eyes from the stand with the armour on it. ‘…the body of King Isildur?’

Gandalf shook his head.
‘His escort were all slain alongside their lord, except for the scouts. They reported the King’s death, but were unable to remember the exact spot where he dived into the river to try to avoid the orc archers. In any case, it was possible that the fast current of the Anduin bore the body, and its armour, far beyond the place where it entered the water. It is certainly true that from what Gollum has told us, the Ring was found a very long way away from where the King was attacked. But then….’ said Gandalf, looking thoughtfully at the armour. ‘…it is possible that the Ring itself was able to travel a good way on its own, aided by the current.’

Gimli shivered.
‘You speak as if it had a will of its own…’ he said. Gandalf shook his head.
‘Perhaps it may….but we will not bother ourselves with such matters. We have enough to do here. Well, Aragorn…’ he said, changing the subject and turning to his companion. ‘Do you wish to go through with your resolution to ride to war in the armour of Isildur? If so, you had better start to outfit yourself. We will be your esquires….’

The armour on the stand had been made for a man of slightly less than Aragorn’s height, but of more stocky build. Aragorn’s lean, wiry frame did not fill out the chain mail hauberk, and it was too short to reach to his knee. He doubled the steel links inside his sword belt and said it would serve. Gimli shook his head.
‘If I only had a day and a forge, and I would get it to fit you like a lady’s silk glove!’ he sighed. ‘…but I know you would not let me try…’
Aragorn laughed. ‘We have no time, Master Gimli..’ then his smile faded. ‘But the greaves are not right….’

‘Here …’ said Gandalf. ‘….you don’t have to wear every article of that armour. There are more items of war-gear in this place, some made for one more like you in build.’

Aragorn looked on as Gandalf swung open a painted wooden chest. Inside gleamed more articles of armour, and a great embroidered dark-blue cloak. Aragorn raised his eyebrows.
‘More of Isildur’s robes?’ he asked. Gandalf shook his head. ‘No…’ he said with slight hesitation. ‘…these are the accoutrements of his brother, Anarion. They were preserved by Elendil and by Isildur, after Anarion’s death, and never worn again. I deem Anarion was more of your build than Isildur…’

Aragorn went over to the chest and lifted up the garments and mail inside it. There was a gleam in his eye. One after the other he put aside the items, and after a while he let out a sigh and began to take off the armour of Isildur.
‘These suit me better…’ he said shortly to the others, who swallowed their surprise and began to help him to put on the new armour.

This mail tunic, reaching just to the knee, fitted Aragorn perfectly. So too did the greaves, and when he slipped it over his head, so did the black surcoat with the White Tree emblazoned on it in silver. The sword belt seemed made for Aragorn’s lean waist and he fastened it and knotted the end so that the enamelled tip, decorated with a silver tree, showed to the front. The only thing lacking was a crown over the tree on his chest.

Gandalf nodded. ‘I will take care of that….’ he said to Aragorn who looked at him inquiringly, but did not pursue the matter.

And so on the eve of his setting out for battle they attired Aragorn, King-elect of Gondor, in the fine silver mail and black and gold greaves and vambraces of Anarion, brother of Isildur the last king of Gondor. Slowly and with great care they clad him in a light padded hauberk of black silk, then drew over his head the mail, as light as any made by Dwarvish hands. Then they laced up the vambraces and greaves and pulled on the armoured gauntlets. They tied on silver spurs and when all else was done they clad Aragorn in the black and silver tunic with the tree, and took out the great cloak, as dark as a night without stars, and fastened it on his shoulder with a silver brooch in the shape of a seven-pointed star.

Then, Gandalf turned back to the armour of Isildur on the stand and took from it the helm with the seabird-embossed crown on it. Holding it in both hands, as if it were a real crown, he lifted it high and placed it on Aragorn’s head. Unlike the rest of Isildur’s armour, and to the relief of all of them, the helmet fitted Aragorn perfectly. But he raised a hand to it as if he felt uncomfortable to be wearing it. Gandalf stopped him.
‘Be at ease, Aragorn. Your time has come; do not be afraid to wear those things that by right are yours now….’

Aragorn shook his head with a wry smile.
‘…and yet it seems so strange to me, Mithrandir..’ he replied.
Gandalf shook his head.
‘And so it will, for a long time. Perhaps for the rest of your life, Elessar. Your kingship, for so I make bold to call it now, will not be like Isildur’s, or like any king of old. With uncertainty and humility you have risen to this height. Unlike many of your royal ancestors you have been willing to follow others, and to learn from them. With reluctance you don the helm which bears the crown. You will be a king with a difference……’