The air stifled with heat. Aragorn had forgone his usual place near the door and the cooling breeze that went with it. Instead, he had laid his bedroll next to Tishan’s, in the centre of the tent. He lay motionless, listing to the breathing of the men around him. He could not act until they slept. After what seemed like half the night, the restless shifting and turning lapsed into a muffled quiet.
Soundlessly, he rolled over to Tishan and rose to a crouch. Putting his hand over the other man’s mouth, he shook him awake.
Tishan woke with a start and tried to pull away. Aragorn shook his head in warning, drawing one of the long, wicked knives that the Haradrim favoured. “One sound and your live is forfeit!” he whispered, pressing the blade to the other man’s throat for emphasis.
Tishan did as he was told, not moving a mussel. His black eyes were wide, and the lack of blood left his skin a dusky grey. He obviously feared for his life, but his face held no trace of shock in. He had known this was coming.
Somehow, that didn’t overly surprise the ranger.
“I’m going to take my hand off your mouth now,” he said. “If you were to try summon help, you would die before the cry left your lips. Do you understand?”
The other man nodded, too fearful to make any other move.
He withdrew his hand, and after pausing for a moment to see if the other man would try to make any sound, began his interrogation. “Who sent you here?”
Tishan made a passable impression of confusion. “I don’t know what you mean. I am in the service of His Royal Divinity, the Sultan Kasnar of Reshnia, as are you.”
Aragorn smiled wryly. “I did not ask whom has the honour of your service. I asked who commanded you to spy on me. Now give me a truthful answer.” The knife pressed closer.
“You must think much of yourself if believe that they would send a man of my skills after you.” The Haradrim’s intended sneer came out hollow and afraid.
“What skills do you speak of?” Aragorn asked, voice dripping with scorn. “The ability to fall asleep with your back to an enemy?”
That stung. “I wasn’t really sleeping, and I meant to have you behind me. They told me to expect this.”
Aragorn smiled. “And who might these ‘they’ that you refer to be?”
Tishan winced, more from his slip than the other’s blade. “Captain Ezrie, the leader of our company,” he stammered, then, remembering the plural, added: “and his senior officers. They believe you to be a spy and wanted to lure you out”
The ranger sighed. “I asked for the truth, this is not it. If our Captain wanted to be rid of me, he would not dally with foolish ploys and amateur spies. He would confront me in the presence of a dozen hand picked guards and have them execute me.” He pressed a little harder. “Now for the last time: who sent you?”
“I don’t know!” it would have been a scream, but for the dagger at his throat. “It was always though an agent; I never met them in person.”
That was what the assassins in the ally had said. “Details,” he snapped.
Now that he had started, Tishan seemed almost eager to talk. “He one of us but had the accent of our Northern Provinces. We only met a few times, always outside the camp. He wanted to know about you: what you were doing, whom you talked to. His gold was good. I didn’t see the harm,” he stopped, thinking that was enough. At further presser he blurted: “He said that you would not kill an unarmed man.”
“We shall see about that,” said Aragorn. He had no intention of doing so, but wanted to put the fear of the Dark Lord into the man’s heart before he got to the important questions. “Tell me all I ask and you might yet live.”
Tishan nodded as much as he could without cutting his own throat.
It took almost an hour, but the ranger finally managed to extract all the information that he needed. By the time he finished, he was deeply disturbed. He had hoped that this was just another trap laid for him, but it sounded as if the tale told earlier that night had been true. Even if it had been purposely passed to him, the facts remained the same.
Denethor had been captured several days past. He would soon be on his way to the Dark Tower. After he got there, it would take him years to die. He and Aragorn had never been friends, but the ranger would not wish that fate on anyone.
He sighed and looked at Tishan. “Well my friend, it seems our association is at an end.”
A look of pure terror entered the other man’s eyes. For the first time that night, he moved. His hand shot under the edge of his bedroll and, before Aragorn could restrain him, came out with a knife twin to the one held to his flesh.
Damn, Aragorn thought. He flipped his own blade so that the point was just under Haradrim’s jawbone, and pushed up. The smooth steel slid effortlessly into the other man’s flesh, burying itself in his brain. Tishan died before he felt it.
Aragorn removed his knife, wiping it clean on the edge of a rug before he returned to its sheath. The death didn’t affect his plans much. He was leaving anyway, and the body wouldn’t be noticed until morning, a good six hours hence.
He hefted his pack, which had been serving as a pillow, and silently slipped it onto his shoulders. Slumbering men were strewn over his path to the door, and he had to slowly pick his way amongst them.
Finally, he was out, the blessedly cool air bathing his skin. He started into the night without hesitation. He knew where he had to go next There was no way that he could make the pass in time on foot; he would need a mount.
The horses were picketed in three staggered lines at the edge of the camp. He made for the inner line where the best animals were kept. He had little trouble getting there; they were still far enough South that the guard was relaxed. After dodging a single sentry, he came among the shadowy shapes of the horses. Most of them slept, heads drooping, but a few whinnied softly to acknowledge his approach. These were not the bulky war-steeds of the Rohirrim; they were smaller and leaner, and faster than the wind. The best of them could make half again the time of any in the North. The swiftest were reserved for the messengers and errand-riders; it was one of their kind that the ranger intended to steal.
He kept his body low, head below the shoulders of the steeds, and crept through the lines. When he reached his target, a three-year-old stallion called Merran, he found all the necessary tack stacked next to it. He silently blessed this custom of Harad, intended to aid hasty decampment in times of crisis. Hastily putting on the light saddle and bridle, he prepared to mount.
Suddenly, there was light behind him.
He turned slowly and saw Captain Ezrie holding a torch and smiling. Behind him were a dozen of his elite guards. “Caught stealing my best horse,” he said, voice low and amused. “I wonder where you are going in such a hurry,” he let all mirth drop, “filthy Northern spy.”