The Dragon and the Fox
Chapter 72: The Valley of Fire
‘Gamling!’ shouted Hama, reining in beside him ‘We’ve lost the banner of the King!’
Gamling turned round in the saddle and shaded his eyes against the
dusty glare of the late summer sun. Along the horizon, like a poisonous
fog, lay the black mass of the enemy, their spear-blades glinting
fiercely, their round, black iron-studded bucklers forming an
impenetrable shield wall. Scattered across the plain between them and
the army of Rohan were fallen riders and horses, and beside one dead
warrior, tangled up in dust and blood, lay the White Horse standard of
the House of Eorl.
King Théoden saw it too, sitting on his great white charger, his
face like thunder. His battle ploy had not worked; when they charged
the enemy they had not fled, giving easy victory to the Rohirrim who
could have cut them down as they ran. Instead, urged on by great
black-armoured overseers with whips, they had formed a shield line and
had beaten off the horsemen. At the last, crossbows had launched a
volley, sparse and badly aimed, but it had done damage enough among the
lightly armoured riders…..
And now the standard was lost.
Théoden looked round at his men. It would be suicide for anyone
to try to retrieve it, and he could not order any man to certain death.
Just as he reconciled himself to the loss of his standard, a tall, thin
youngster in a mail shirt made for someone much bigger, spurred his
horse through the ranks of the Rohirrim and came to a halt in front of
the King. It was Gamling.
‘My lord, give me the honour of rescuing the standard of the White Horse of Rohan!’
Some older warriors sniggered, others shot dark looks at the upstart
youth. But King Théoden leaned back in his saddle and said
‘You don’t think, lad, that is a bit too dangerous?’
‘No, my lord!’ replied Gamling. Just then he heard hoof-beats behind and Hama drew up beside him.
‘I will go too, my lord King!’
Gamling wanted to turn and look at Hama but dared not take his eyes
from the King’s face. He tried not to smile; Hama would never let him
do this on his own….
Gamling and Hama were from the same village and had joined the royal
éored at the same time. As boys on the windswept Mark they had
practised swordcraft with wooden foils and pitcher lids under the
irascible guidance of a veteran of the Royal Guard, pensioned off to
return to his village and live out his days peacefully after losing an
eye in battle.
‘Stand on your mark and watch your guard!’ he scolded. ‘You youngsters,
always looking for glory and forgetting how to tie your own bootlaces!’
When Rohan was attacked, and men were required, of any fighting ability
or none, Hama and Gamling were first to leave their village and come to
Edoras. Any glory, however hard won, seemed better than following the
plough, knee-deep in spring mud. Long campaigns in the saddle, through
bitter winter snows or blistering summer heat, had hardened them but
never quenched their fire. And always, they were together.
Gamling was a half-year older than Hama, who called him in jest
‘Gamling the Old’. But Hama, if he was anything, was lucky. A day
chosen for Hama to perform any task would always be dry and fine.
Fortune seemed to smile on him. Ever he and Gamling strove to catch the
King’s eye, and perform some feat that would be rewarded by a place in
the Royal Guard, that echelon of élite Riders who formed the
king’s own household cavalry. Always the two watched with longing these
great warriors, their tall, gilded helms crested with black horse-tails
and their green cloaks embroidered with gold thread, as they swept out
of the wooden gates of Edoras flanking the King when he rode to battle.
Some day, perhaps….
Now they waited, holding their breath, as the King studied them both, his grey eyes keen under the visor of his gilded helm.
‘Don’t you think it is hopeless?’ he asked quietly. There was no sound
except the wind blowing across the Mark and the jingle of bits. Hama
‘There is always hope, my lord! Anyway, we have a plan….’
Gamling wanted to look at Hama questioningly, but he kept his eyes on the King’s face. Théoden raised his eyebrows.
‘Such courage should not be checked by cold counsel…’ he said wryly, and nodded.
‘Very well, do as you please…’ as the two young men turned to go, he added;
‘Remember, if your…plan....does not work, there is no shame in running away…’
Hama and Gamling nodded excitedly and turning their horses with a bow
they galloped away. A captain of an eored leaned over and said to
Théoden in a low voice;
‘My lord, they will be killed…’
‘Death is nothing compared to honour..’ thought Théoden
fiercely. He saw in Gamling himself at that age. ‘What else can carry a
man through a war?’
But he said nothing…
Gamling rode level with Hama and hissed in his ear;
‘Just watch…’ replied Hama with a smile.
The two armies were drawn up on opposing heights, with a long grassy
vale between them. It was late summer, and the ground was parched, the
grass scorched brown and dry by the long drought. The orc host was not
organised well, they had broken up and some were streaming away to the
rear, hoping to use the lull in fighting to escape the wrath of the
Rohirrim. But still their front line presented a wall of shields, black
bucklers boasting an emblem of a red eye, their lances resting on top,
a bristling hedge of spear-points.
At the Northern end of the line of horsemen, Hama drew his tall, rangy
chestnut to a halt and jumped down from the saddle. He took a small box
from his saddle-roll and knelt down on the dry ground.
Gamling smiled as he saw what his comrade was doing; with the tiny
flint and rag inside his tinder box, Hama was starting a fire.
Fire; it was an old trick the Rohirrim used in war, but they used it
sparingly and only at great need, for it could overwhelm both friend
and foe alike and ravage the Mark, destroying crops and herds and
villages. Gamling thought King Théoden would command Hama to
desist, for after the long summer the grass was as dry as tinder, but
the king looked on and said nothing….
At last a wisp of smoke rose and a tiny flame burst from the flint.
Hama thrust it into a handful of dry grass and it smouldered then began
to burn with a ragged flame. Gamling, dismounting, tore up some dry
stalks of thistledown and bound them with a piece of leather and wet it
slightly with some wine from a goatskin, to make it burn more slowly.
They remounted and rode out between the two armies.
Closer the black ranks came, and closer. The army of Rohan was far
behind now, and the two friends rode across the empty vale between them
and the enemy. The orcs seemed not to notice them, intent on their
gradual withdrawal; none wanted to be the last to face the Riders,
hacked and hewn when the shield-wall was at last thrown down. But
eventually a few cries gave warning that they were seen, and a crossbow
bolt rattled on the hard ground beside them.
‘We’re in range, Hama!’ said Gamling. His friend nodded but did not
answer, just threw his reins to Gamling and dismounted, kneeling down
and setting his makeshift torch to the dry grass at his feet….
Another crossbolt whined past, and their horses started, pulling at
their reins; even the most battle-hardened charger hated the sight and
smell of orcs….
With a crackle and a roar the grass caught fire. Hama jumped back, and
almost at once a blackened circle appeared on the ground and the fire,
like some demon conjured up by a wizard, set off towards the orc-line,
devouring the grass as it went…
Had the wind not been from the North-west, blowing the fire towards the
dry uplands south of the Entwash, and had the army of Rohan not had at
their back a wide stony river-bed, they would never have fired the
land, for the land was their life. But Théoden wanted his banner
back, and his men wanted to burn out this poison of Mordor from their
homeland, by fire or by sword or by whatever it took to do it….
The fire raged but gave off only a thin reddish smoke. But it was a
stinging cloud, and blown by a stiff breeze that seemed to be on the
side of the Rohirrim it enveloped the dark ranks of orcs. They snorted
like boars and rubbed their smarting eyes; Hama said to Gamling;
Hama was slightly ahead as they spurred their horses down the narrow
corridor of grass between the two armies. But Gamling, lighter and more
agile, was the better horseman and his weedy grey soon overtook Hama’s
labouring chestnut. Hama unslung his short bow and nocked an arrow. He
knew this was Gamling’s hunt; only Gamling had the skill to pick up
something on the ground at the gallop. He had done it often enough in
practice; now he would do it in earnest, for life or death…..
Gamling pulled his horse up; brave Fánaí had survived the
charge of the Mumakil unscathed, but the terror of the great monsters
looming above and around him had quelled even his great spirit and his
flanks were lathered with foam and his eyes wild and staring. Almost
without thinking, Gamling laid a comforting hand on the horse’s neck.
‘Be easy, friend….’ He said softly to the animal, and leaned back in the saddle, himself sore and weary….
All around him on the plain of the Pelennor, as far as he could see,
was the devastation of battle. Almost all the King’s éored lay
dead or dying with their horses beside them. And nearby, stretched on
the field in death, was King Théoden himself.
Gamling wore no helm, for he was the King’s trumpeter. Now he held the
royal war horn in his hand, its mouthpiece of graven silver and its
surface worn smooth by the hands of generations of trumpeters, and he
wondered what call he should sound, or who would heed it? Who now was
King of Rohan?
They had covered almost half the ground towards the fallen standard
when the orcs saw them through the smoke. A cry went up, and a crossbow
bolt whined past Hama’s head, causing his horse to shy. Gamling drove
on, his mount’s hooves barely touching the ground as it seemed almost
to fly through the smoke…
Ahead Gamling saw the bright green silk of the banner, dappled with the
blood of the dead standbearer lying beside it. Another crossbow bolt
whined past him and another, but Gamling had his gaze fixed on that
green and red vision, and he did not look to right or to left, or heed
the growing roar from the orc host….
On the third day of the march from Edoras to Helm’s Deep, King
Théoden sent Gamling and Hama forward to scout the route. They
had wended through the hills for two days but now the path led back to
the plain, before entering the deep coombe where stood the ancient
fortress built by Helm Hammerhand. In the mountains, they were
protected by the terrain. Now they were exposed to any marauders from
‘See the ways are clear, Gamling. And Hama too…..’
As the two men, captains now of the Royal Guard, saluted and turned to go, Aragorn, a frown creasing his brow, said;
‘Let me ride forward with you, lest you encounter any enemy…’
‘Nay, Aragorn’ laughed King Théoden ‘these two are a match for any foe’.
Gamling smiled and Hama scowled. It was a long time since he had been
on campaign and he felt rusty and slow…behind Théoden Legolas
winked at Aragorn, and quietly cantered away after the two Rohirrim. An
Elf could climb one of the escarpments that jutted out over the
pathway, and see everything for miles, in less time than the horsemen
took to reach the front of the column of straggling people…
When he reached the top of the cliff, Legolas kept low, lest his
silhouette against the sky drew the gaze, or the arrows, of any foe.
But before him the Mark spread out, wide and green in the late winter
light. On the very far horizon was the dark shadow of Mirkwood, and
Legolas breathed a deep sigh, for that was the nearest forest, and he
yearned for the sound of wind rushing through trees. Just then his
senses, sharper than a hunting wolf, caught a sound; grass being
crushed, rock pressed by large, catlike feet….
Legolas spun round; he had to warn the Rohirrim…but there was nothing
to be seen. From below came the sound of galloping horses, and he saw
Gamling and Hama ride past, reining in their horses and looking round…
‘They sense it too!’ thought Legolas, and heedless now of being seen he
rose to his feet and unslung his bow and reached behind him for an
He was too slow; from somewhere below him, some hiding place in the
furze bushes clinging to the cliffs, sprang a great grey shape. It
landed squarely on Hama, crashing into him with all its great weight,
knocking him from the saddle and bowling his horse over…
Gamling was slightly in front, and wheeled his horse around
desperately, drawing his sword. But he was not quick enough. The beast,
plainly seen now to be a warg, a giant wolf, sprang again on his fallen
prey. Gamling heard a shout, cut off, that he would hear again and
again, waking and sleeping, for all time, as the creature fell on Hama
and sank its great curved yellow fangs into his throat…
‘They nearly have it, my lord!’ shouted the captain to Théoden,
and all the army of the Rohirrim were standing up in their stirrups,
roaring their encouragement as Hama and Gamling, far away and half
obscured by drifts of brown smoke, sped towards the fallen standard…
The arrows and crossbow bolts were coming faster now, and only their
speed kept them from being struck down. But Gamling thought of nothing
but the standard; he had let the reins slide through his fingers and
was leaning down in the saddle, watching the bright silk coming closer….
‘Let me not fail now, not so close!’ he whispered to himself. Behind he
could hear the drumming of hooves as Hama followed him and the thrum as
he let loose an arrow, more in defiance than in harm….
Gamling pulled his right foot out of the stirrup and lowered himself
down till one hand could touch the grass flying past. Closer, closer,
then he was on it, and knowing he had only this one chance he seized
the bright silk with all his strength and wrenched it up, and the pole
followed, tugged free of the dead man’s clawlike grip. Then Gamling
pulled himself back up into the saddle, still clutching the banner, and
dug his spurs into his horse’s sides, flying away from the enemy
towards the cheering line of the Rohirrim.
With Hama galloping at his heels Gamling knew, even before he was out
of range of the foe’s arrows, that this day had bought them a place at
the King’s side, for all time. Behind them the bush fire, grown to an
inferno, was licking the armoured heels of the fleeing orcs….
Théoden looked round at the cheering Rohirrim, and tasted their fierce joy.
‘This….’ he thought ‘is what it means to be truly alive…’
‘I should have fallen with Hama in the White Mountains’ said Gamling to himself,
‘Or with the Galadhrim at the Deeping Wall, but now my king has fallen
as well as my brother, what is there left for Gamling but death?’
He looked around at the desolation of the Pelennor then slung the
battle horn of Rohan on his saddle bow and urged Fánaí
towards the dark smoke where battle still raged. He remembered the
smoke that hid him and Hama as they galloped to retrieve the fallen
‘Even if there is no-one to see me or sing of my deeds..’ he thought ‘I
would rather die fighting than be crushed by some monster….’
The memory of riding under the Mumakil was still raw in his mind. It
was a poor death for a warrior, stamped into the dust by a giant.
Worse, almost, than being torn to pieces by a warg….
‘Gamling! Where are you going? Sound the rally at once!’
Pulling Fánaí up so abruptly the horse was thrown onto
its haunches, Gamling looked round, startled. Riding swiftly up to him
Éomer had come from mourning his slain uncle and his dead
sister, Éowyn. His face was white, not with fear but with fury,
the tear tracks dried in the grime on his cheeks. Gamling had never
seen him so transfigured by the rage of battle. Behind him rode a
remnant of the King’s guard, their cloaks soiled and torn, but the same
fixed, stern look on their faces. Seeing despair in Gamling’s eyes,
Éomer rode up to him and said;
‘I am King of the Mark now and you are my trumpeter, Gamling. Blow the
call to rally the last of the Rohirrim. Our hopes are ashes and our
people are dead. Let us mark their passing with victory…. or join them
on the pyre!’