The Dragon and the Fox

by Varda


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 slowly;
‘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 replied eagerly;
‘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;
‘What plan?’
‘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;

‘Now!’

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 the plain…..
‘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 arrow.

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 standard.
‘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 was Éomer….

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!’