‘Wake up, Merry! It’s morning, the Rohirrim are getting ready to set out…’
Merry rolled over and sat up. It was still dark, and piercingly cold. A damp fog hung in the air and Merry’s blanket was soaked with dew. He shivered, for a moment wishing he was at home in Bucklebury, awakening some frosty winter morning to a white landscape and burrowing deeper under the coverlets to snatch another hour’s sleep in a warm, soft feather bed…
‘Merry!’ Éowyn’s voice would brook no delay, and groaning inwardly Merry threw back the blanket and got to his feet.
Every bone and muscle in the hobbit’s body ached, and his stomach grumbled with hunger. But for once Merry did not think of food, nor even of his sore legs and back. As soon as he was awake, he sensed an urgency and a feeling of expectancy in the men of Rohan around him. As if reading his thoughts, Éowyn leaned over and said quietly to him;
‘This is the last day, Merry. Today we reach Minas Tirith, today at last we go into battle…’
A shiver ran through Merry, but not this time of cold; despite his determination to be brave he felt afraid, and wondered would he ever see another dawn. If not, it seemed a pity that his last morning was so cold and dreary. He thought again of Pippin, and cheered himself by thinking that he was now about to rescue his friend from the beleaguered city.
‘I’m coming, Pip!’ he muttered to himself. ‘Hold on, dear friend….’
The Rohirrim were snatching a hurried breakfast, hard rye bread and some dried meat, washed down with cider sweetened with honey. Much as he usually loved breakfast, especially if followed by a second breakfast, Pippin could not eat the food so he took a long swallow of the cider. It burned his throat and he coughed, but it warmed him and lifted his spirits.
Éowyn helped him into the saddle. She did not speak, seeming preoccupied with her own sombre thoughts. The men did not bother to hide or move furtively as they had done the past few days, as the blackness was so profound no-one could see them. There were orders to light no torches, as they wanted to evade orc scouts and reach the Dike and the Pelennor beyond it unnoticed. So, in the misty darkness, the great host of Rohan moved out on their last ride to the city of Minas Tirith…
Dawn should have arisen then, but in its place came a great smouldering glow of red in the East. All about him Merry could hear the breathing and snorting of horses and the steady trampling of their hooves on the wet grass. He curled a wisp of Windfola’s mane around his fingers and prayed that he would not fall off. More than ever he now wondered had he done right, and if he would even reach the battle, but fall and be pounded to death by hooves long before he could do any fighting. But he forced down his fears, and fixed his thoughts on Pippin and Gandalf. If all that was left to him was to die aiding his friends, that at least he would do….
Then a change came in the air; a wind, scented by the south and the saltness of the sea. The men of Rohan raised their heads to smell it, and their hearts lifted. The gloom grew less thick, and by a grey gleaming light the Rohirrim saw before them the great outer wall of the Rammas Echor, only now broken and burning. Beyond it was only smoke and darkness.
Down the hill they cantered to the Wall. Along the ridge had grown up a great number of red hawthorn trees, and the rising wind tore the blossoms from their branches and as the horses broke into a gallop the red petals clung to their wet manes and the sombre green cloaks of their riders.
Riding level with Eowyn and Merry but in the Éored of Grimbold, Líofa felt the petals brush his cheek and his heart was grieved, for it reminded him of his home in the forests of Mirkwood in the North. He glanced to the side and saw Callanach and his grief became even more, for the determined, eager look on the lad’s pale face was made poignant by his youth and lack of physical strength and hardiness. The Elf wondered for a moment had he done right to bring him to this, but he knew that Callanach rode to fight with King Théoden out of his own desire for honour. Yet Líofa regretted that the boy was here at all, for he was not half the size or strength of the men of Rohan.
‘May Death not find you this day, Storm, or if it does, let it find us both...’ the Elf thought to himself.
For himself he had another fear. Since he had failed to cast off the taint put on him by Saruman’s creatures, he was cut off from the hope of the Elves, his kind, to take ship across the sea to the West, but would die here in Middle Earth, just as a mortal man would. Yet he was not a man, so this battle, if it went ill, would bring him annihilation in death. Líofa looked at Grimbold’s warrior son Tiarna, his long fair hair gleaming under his helmet crested with a black horsetail, and the Elf knew that this day would bring the end of many things…
By the time the army of Rohan reached the bottom of the ditch they were at a gallop but not yet a full charge. It was however enough to carry them up the slope and over the Dyke. A guard of orcs stationed on the wall was swept away and slain and the horsemen flowed on till they came to a halt on a grassy height before the Dyke and overlooking the Pelennor Fields. There King Théoden ordered a halt….
At that moment a figure started up from the stones which had been cast down from the fortifications on the Dyke. The Rohan scouts shouted out in anger and warning, for they had not seen him, and now he was right in front of King Théoden. They turned as one and galloped back with swords and axes raised.
But the figure, revealed by the growing daylight as a Haradrim warrior, made no effort to attack the King or his mount Snowmane. Calmly, not seeming to realise that armed men bore down on him, he unwound his black scarf to reveal his face then unslung his short curved bow and broke it across his knee. He flung the broken pieces down before Théoden then drew a bright curved scimitar and laid it on the wet grass before the King as well. Then he knelt before him, his hands raised in surrender.
The King’s bodyguard reached the Haradrim and raised their swords and long-handled axes to strike, but at that moment Théoden shouted;
The warriors pulled their horses back and wheeled away, and silence fell. Théoden leaned forward in his saddle and studied the Haradrim’s face, olive-skinned with fierce dark eyes fixed in turn on him. His red robe was torn and stained with blood and his gilt armour was battered; he has been in battle....Théoden seemed to reflect for a moment then he said, loud enough for his army to hear;
‘We have fought your kind many times before, Southron, but never has one of your folk surrendered to us. But it shall be a sign of the quality of the Riders of the Mark that they treat their enemy with more compassion than they themselves have been treated. I do not know any words of your own Southron speech, but in my own I tell you now you are free to go, only not towards the field of battle, but back to your own land.’
Salanda bowed his head low, and replied in the Common Speech;
‘I know your tongue Lord King of the Mark, and thank you for your mercy and leave to go. I serve the Steward of Gondor….’
A murmur of astonishment went through the host. Théoden suppressed a smile and said;
‘You are the first of your people to pledge allegiance to Gondor, Haradrim.’
‘My Lord, I am the first, but if Fate is kind and lets me return to my homeland, I will not be the last…’
Théoden nodded thoughtfully, then said;
‘We are in haste; take up your scimitar and go on your way. In time, Gondor will redeem your pledge of allegiance. Now, be gone, Southerner!’
Salanda picked up his sword and sheathed it, bowed to the king, and as the army moved forward he made his way through them, the horsemen parting reluctantly to let him pass. As he came level with the Haradrim, Líofa stared at him, and Salanda met his gaze. A spark of recognition passed between them, then the Haradrim looked away and hurried on. But Líofa remembered Salanda, and the Battle of the Ford, and with a bound of his heart he wondered if Salanda were here, was Marfach here too?
The wind by now had blown the last shreds of mist away, and as the Rohirrim mustered their host on the hill overlooking the Pelennor, a dreadful sight spread out before them. Soaring into the black sky was the White City of Minas Tirith, crowning a great buttress of rock thrown out from the mountains. From her lowest circle to her highest the city was burning. Fire licked at towers and domes, and ragged holes gaped black in her white walls. Merry’s heart leaped into his throat; Pippin! He thought. Gandalf…..! Have we come too late?
In front of the city was a sight even more terrible; the entire plain was covered with a great multitude of orcs and uruk-hai, dark-armoured and obscured by the smoke of great fires set in deep pits delved by countless orcs and trolls. Impelled on through alleys in the dark legions were other engines of war, and monstrous beasts such as Merry had never seen drew them to the city walls, to break the defence and the will of the people of Gondor…
Merry’s heart stood still and the blood roared in his ears. He was aware of the whole army drawing in its breath around him, but he had never felt so alone. Éowyn put an arm round him, thinking to encourage him, but clasped him so tight he could almost not breathe. She whispered in his ear;
‘Courage, Merry! Courage for our friends!’
King Théoden rode out in front of his army, and gazed down on the Seige of Gondor. His heart too stood still, and for a moment he was struck dumb.
In Théoden’s mind at that moment was the Golden Hall of Edoras, and the torn and stained flags that hung from its walls. Banners of his father, Thengol, and his father’s fathers, all won in bloody combat. Once he too, Théoden King of Rohan, had captured enemy banners. But he had been young then, young and brave and invincible. Before the Shadow had fallen on him. And now, looking down on what might be the last great battle fought by his people, Théoden wondered had it really been Wormtongue that had brought about his fall into darkness, or his own guilt and despair. For indeed, it was easy to blame Grima…no matter; this was his last battle, and it would pay for everything…
‘Give me your horn…’ Théoden said to Guthlaf his standard bearer. The man hurried to obey and the King put it to his lips and blew such a blast that the silver-bound horn cracked and the King flung it to the ground. With a fierce look he turned to Éomer and said;
‘You, Éomer, once my sister-son but now my son and the heir to the lordship of the Mark, follow my banner down the centre of the battle…’
He looked across at Grimbold and his son Tiarna;
‘Let the Grimslade boar attack on my right flank…’ and he turned and shouted to the whole army;
‘Forth, and fear no darkness….’
At the King’s words the Rohirrim spread out in battle array, their line unfolding till they showed against the sky like a hedge formed of spears and axes and helms glinting in the sullen light. King Théoden turned Snowmane and urged him to a gallop along the front rank of his men. He drew his sword and shouted.
‘This is the day, Riders of Théoden, when you fulfil your oaths, to lord and land. A red day, a sword day, and our sun rises….’
And he pointed his sword to the sun, just then breaking free of the black clouds of Mordor to cast a pale light on the Pelennor. The royal banners of the white horse and rayed sun were held up and shaken and the Rohirrim beat their spears and swords on their shields. Théoden cried.
‘Death!’ and his host replied ‘Death!’ Behind Merry Éowyn bent her head and was silent.
‘Death!’ shouted the King again and again his host answered, even louder;
Merry held out his little sword of the North and for a moment he felt he could not awaken in his heart the same longing for slaughter as these fell warriors of Rohan. But then he remembered the Shire, imagining it trampled and in flames. He remembered he was one of the Brandybucks, the Masters of Buckland. He remembered too the little glade below Parth Galen where Boromir fell dying as he and Pippin were borne away by orcs. And he wanted to avenge Boromir, and he remembered Weathertop and he wanted to avenge the deadly wounding of Frodo. A battle fury came on him and in a hoarse voice almost unrecognisable to himself he cried;
‘Death! Death!’ and hearing the hobbit shouting his war cry Éowyn joined him with a desperate shout; ‘Death..!’
And not waiting for his standard bearer or his bodyguards King Théoden spurred Snowmane forward and the army of Rohan, following the great white charger and the golden shield of the King flashing in the morning light, leaped forward as one and thundered towards the endless dark ranks of the army of Mordor...