The Dragon and the Fox

by Varda

Chapter 70: The Circle of Steel

Callanach stood up and looked around, but as far as he could see there were only the dead warriors of Rohan; the battle still raged, but in the distance. A wall of grey dust hid the White City and marked where the fight still raged, but here, amid the slaughtered of Théoden’s people, there was a strange silence, a weary calm, with only crows calling as they circled the battlefield.

Callanach knelt down beside Líofa’s body and with no-one to see his tears he wept, taking the Elf’s cold hand in his own.
‘I cannot believe we were brought together again only for this, for me to see you die!’ he said aloud. As if in reply a glossy-winged crow landed on the carcass of a dead horse and eyed Líofa hungrily.

Suddenly filled with helpless rage Callanach jumped up and ran over and aimed a kick at the bird, which flapped lazily away with a mocking cry just before he reached it. The sound echoed away into silence, and Callanach looked and there was nothing alive but the crows; the ground was covered with slain men, orcs and horses, and fallen Mumakil like grey mountains bristling with arrows. A white horse banner planted in the torn up grass flapped in the warm wind. What difference did one dead Elf make to this slaughter?

‘You can’t sit here all day; come and practice weaponcraft….’

Callanach jumped up at the voice behind him and turned round. A tall Elf stood there, clad in the grey tunic and green cloak of the woodland Galadhrim. His long fair hair gleamed in the shadows under the great trees, and his grey eyes were keen and his face stern. On his brow he wore a circlet of mithril set with a diamond like a star and he carried a great bow of red yew inlaid with a leaf pattern in gold. Two Elves similarly clad and armed stood behind him, but even a boy like Callanach could see this was a prince among Elves.

‘Are you Celeborn?’ he asked. The other two Elves laughed, but this tall Elf did not smile. Instead he bowed as if to someone of great importance and said;
‘I am Haldir, and among Elves I am of high rank, but I am not a prince. You too are of a line of chieftains, your father was leader of Rangers…’
‘Rangers do not have chieftains’ replied Callanach quickly ‘They are all equal, being descended of the Dúnedain. But my father was indeed a leader of Rangers, his name was Feolchú, The Wolf…..but he is dead…’

Haldir stood with his head slightly on one side, listening patiently to the boy, but his grey-green eyes were never still, flickering from Callanach’s thin frame and shabby clothes to the eaves of the great Mallorn trees that sighed and creaked in the winter breeze. Although in Lothlórien it never seemed as winters did in the North, more like some long, tranquil September.

‘Why do you sit here, looking out on the river?’ the Elf asked, gesturing to the broad silver expanse of the Anduin, glimmering through the trees.
‘I can’t believe my friends left me behind…’ Callanach blurted out.
‘Do you think they will come back for you?’ Haldir said, frowning.
‘No’ replied Callanach ‘They have their duty to fulfil in the service of Gondor. They cannot wait for one they believe will never wake up again. They are far away by now…’

There was a silence, then Haldir said;
‘Do you wish to learn the arts of war as we practice them here in Lothlórien ?’

Callanach stared at the Elf. The Galadhrim guarded their forests with skill and ferocity; few among the races of men or Elves could match their archery or cunning in woodland warfare. Haldir put his head on one side and said, as if amused;
‘Well, do you think we can teach you anything?’
‘Yes, yes!’ said Callanach ‘It is an honour, to be instructed by a prince of the Galadhrim…’
‘I was chosen because not many of the Galadhrim know your tongue’ said Haldir with a twinkle in his eye. ‘But rest easy; it is the wish of the Lady Galadriel that you be taught our way of war. You are honoured indeed….’

Haldir stood in a sunlit space under the Mallorns, still and unmoving for what seemed an age, staring into the woodland around him as if listening to some music Callanach could not hear. Then he drew his great curved sword, slowly swinging it in an arc. In the sun-speckled glade the light flashed on the blue-white steel and Callanach, watching open-mouthed, saw Elvish lettering on the blade. He wondered what it meant and Haldir, reading his thoughts, said;
‘The letters make up the words; ‘The realm of Melian is fair beyond sorcery’.

Callanach nodded, not quite understanding the phrase.
‘Melian is ancestress and protectress of forests…’ Haldir added watching him closely.
‘You must know what it is you fight for…’
‘I fight for Arnor, and the King…’ replied Callanach with spirit. Haldir laughed;
‘Good! Now watch….’

And moving softly and silently Haldir stepped up to the boy and wielding the great curved sword as easily as an ash wand he cut the air round him, defending, attacking, circling, giving way, darting forward. At last he took a white silken swatch from his tunic and threw it in the air. It unfolded as it fell, spreading out in the cool air like a white bird. Haldir raised the sword and brought it down swiftly, cutting the scarf in two. Callanach stared. Haldir, still unsmiling, held out the long polished handle to the boy.
‘Now you try. Aim at me…’
‘But I might hurt you….’ Haldir smiled.
‘You won’t…’

No matter how quickly Callanach moved, no matter what swordtrick he used that he had learned from his father, he could not as much as touch the elf’s long grey tunic. Haldir seemed to flit away from under the blade like a ghost. After an hour, Callanach had to stop, sweating and winded. Haldir smiled and calmly claimed back his sword.
‘Till tomorrow, then….’ He said, retreating with a bow and a smile…

So every day just before noon Haldir came quietly through the trees, carrying his great Elven sword. On the third day he handed Callanach a sword of his own in a scabbard of fine red leather embossed with Elven lettering. When Haldir gave a nod of permission, he drew the sword.

It was a smaller version of Haldir’s great sword, somewhat lighter for Callanach’s slender frame and shorter reach. But it glimmered in the mottled light of the glade and he saw that the steel was as fine, and as true and as keen as the Elf’s own.
‘It is a gift of the Lady herself. Indeed you are favoured…’

There was lettering on the blade.
‘What does it say?’ asked Callanach. Haldir replied;
‘I serve the Lady Galadriel’
‘And so I do!’ exclaimed Callanach, delighted with the gift. ‘I will honour it and try to bear it with courage….’

Haldir did not reply for a moment. He stepped away and drew his own sword and swung it in a wide arc as he often did at the beginning of their practice. He said;
‘Within this circle bring no hatred or anger….’

Callanach looked at Haldir and replied;
‘But the enemy that killed my father, and drove my people to roam the North like wolves, how can I not hate them?’

Haldir merely replied;
‘If you bring anger or hate within the circle, you will die.’

Every day of his training, Callanach grew stronger and quicker. He was given a green and grey Elven tunic in place of his ragged clothes, and he felt a part of the forest when he put it on. But still he could not as much as touch the Elf. Then, one day, not even thinking of what he was doing, Callanach clipped Haldir with the tip of his sword. He dropped it at once.
‘Did I cut you?’ he asked. Haldir did not reply for a long time, gazing down at the boy as if seeing him for the first time. Then he bowed and said;

‘Callanach, no mortal being can defeat me in swordplay. None even among the Elves has ever struck me, even in practice. Yet you have. When you passed the gates of death, you brought something back with you. You are no longer a mortal as other mortals are. You will never find a home among men again….’

Callanach stared at the Elf in dismay. Haldir said;
‘I can teach you no more, Storm…..’

‘What did Haldir know of death anyway!’ Callanach thought bitterly ‘They are not human, not even mortal. What do they know….’

He knelt on the muddied ground, holding Líofa in his arms and gazing into the still white face searching for some sign of life.
‘What do they know….’

The sound of hoofbeats interrupted his thoughts and he looked up. A rider of Rohan was galloping across the battlefield, spurring his tired horse on, his gold-embroidered green cloak flying out behind him.
‘One of Théoden’s bodyguard!’ thought Callanach with relief. He jumped to his feet and hailed the Rider.
‘Here! Over here! Help us….’

The man looked over at the sound, checking his horse’s gallop. He wheeled his mount and trotted over to Callanach, who walked towards him.

As the man came closer Callanach realised that he knew him. A cold feeling came over him; it was Íarnaí, the warrior Callanach had fought and beaten. When the man in turn recognised Callanach, he drew his horse up, and stared down at him, hostility in his face….

‘The Dunlending’s little friend!’ he said with a sneer. ‘Your wolfs-head is not here to look after you now, is he, whelp? No elves to save you this time….’ And he drew his sword and spurred towards the boy.

Callanach stood still as the horse galloped at him. He hated to run away, and anyway the mounted man would soon overtake him. He fingered his own sword hilts, but knew he could not fight against a warrior of his own side.
‘I am King Théoden’s man, a Rider of Rohan. I cannot draw against one of ours, whatever he does…’

When the charger was almost on him, Callanach closed his eyes.
‘Tiarna is dead, Líofa is dead. We swore an oath, we would not be parted again…’

There was a snort and the sound of hooves tearing up the hard ground. Callanach opened his eyes.
‘Draw, or run, curse you!’ shouted the man, leaning over in the saddle and glaring at Callanach. He could kill in hot blood, in battle, but to ride down a boy who stood still and would not defend himself, even Íarnaí could not do it….he dismounted and strode over to him.
‘Who are you?’ he said. ‘And why did you call to me?’
‘I am Storm’ replied Callanach ‘and I want you to help me with my wounded friend….’

Íarnaí looked down at Líofa and shook his head.
‘He is dead, not wounded….’
‘No!’ said Callanach. ‘He is only hurt. Elves ofttimes seem dead to our eyes, but they are only wounded. Please, he has the favour of King Théoden….help me bear him from the field…’

Íarnaí looked round; there was no sign of his éored, or his chieftain. The battle still raged, but far away. He looked at the anxious face of the boy and said;
‘King Théoden is dead….’

‘You, Lord Elf, and no other will make our victory song when we get home!’ said King Théoden to Líofa. The feast table fell silent, thinking of the long ride that lay ahead to bring them to Gondor, and the desperate battle they would have before its walls….but then Gamling seized his horn of ale and rising to his feet he shouted;

And the feast-table roared back the name, and hammered on the wooden boards with the hilts of their daggers…

Íarnaí dismounted and bent down to help Callanach lift Líofa up.
‘We can put him on the horse and you can ride behind him. I will lead him….’

Callanach nodded and gave the man a grateful look. But as Íarnaí led his mount over to where Líofa lay Callanach suddenly looked up. He gazed at the grey mist that had risen when the Army of the Dead had passed by. His heart began to pound in his chest and the blood began to roar in his ears….

‘You have something brought back from beyond the gates of death….’ Haldir had said….

‘Someone is coming….’ Callanach said to Íarnaí. The man looked round.
‘I don’t see anything’ he muttered impatiently. ‘Come on and help me before I change my mind….’
‘No, listen….’

Íarnaí raised his head and strained to hear, then snorted and went to mount his horse. At that moment a tall, ragged figure broke from the mist, running swiftly across the battlefield. Seen against the grey-yellow smoke it seemed taller than a man, but Callanach looked hard at him and made out the winged brass helmet, the interleaved gilded armour and the long torn red cloak, the tall pike with the fishtail blade…..
‘Haradrim!’ shouted Íarnaí in alarm.
‘No, not Haradrim’ said Callanach, half to himself. ‘Easterlings….’

One after another they came into view, running for their lives away from the army of Aragorn and the King of the Dead. Perhaps they knew already that there was no escape, that the Anduin bank was taken and all the river quays and harbour alleyways. But they still fled towards the waterside. They had thrown away their tall rectangular brass shields in order to run faster, but they still had their long wickedly curved pikes and their swords. They numbered about twenty, and were led by a captain, his gilded helm marked in red with a vulture emblem. And it was this Easterling who saw Callanach and Íarnaí.

The man checked and shouted, pointing at them with his spear. The Easterlings, beaten and mauled by the Rohirrim, had yet some fight in them, and saw the chance to butcher two of their tormentors. They changed direction, and charged howling at the two men….

‘Let’s get out of here!’ cried Íarnaí.’On my horse, quick!’
‘No! shouted Callanach ‘I cannot leave Líofa!’
‘He’s dead’ wailed the man. ‘Can’t you see that? Come with me, or die here…’

Callanach had been left for dead, in Lothlórien. He would not leave Líofa as he had been left…..
‘No!’ he said again. Íarnaí looked at the Easterlings, running swiftly towards them.
‘Stay, then, but stay on your own. Throw your life away, I want no part of it. ….’

And setting spurs to his horse, Íarnaí galloped away and was quickly hidden in the smoke of battle.

Callanach did not watch him go. He was looking at the Easterlings as they ran to the attack, like jackals on a wounded deer. He put a hand on his Elven sword and drew it from its scabbard. The dull smoky light glinted on the blade, and for a heartbeat his enemies slowed their charge, given thought, perhaps, by the sight of the Elven steel. Then they encouraged each other with war cries in their Easterling tongue, and levelled their pikes as they came up on Callanach.

As Haldir had taught him in Lothlórien, Callanach swung the blade in an arc, wide and level and complete. He felt more than heard the keen edge cut the air with a noise like a song. His feet seemed to move of their own accord and he followed the blade and an armoured body broke into the shining circle and Callanach lifted his hand and flicked his wrist, and the Easterling’s head sprang from his shoulders and thumped onto the ground and rolled away…

‘I can’t teach you any more, Callanach….’ said Haldir…

‘Fall back and use your bows!’ shouted the Easterling captain, and his warriors scrambled away from the deadly arc of the Elven blade and unslung their short curved horn bows and took aim at the solitary warrior.

Callanach pointed the tip of the Elven sword to the ground and stared at them, looking from one to the other, the faces hidden by vizors which revealed only the eyes, bright with hatred and the thirst for blood.

‘Wait for me, Líofa…’