By the time he reached the grove, Aragorn felt ready to fall into the cool water of the stream. Face first. The waves of heat had made the trees seem much closer than they were. Instead of the few leagues he had expected, he had walked five. The water Merran had scented was a stagnant ditch, so filled with slime that he had vowed not drink it were it last in Middle-earth. His canteen had run dry over an hour ago, and he was beginning to regret his decision.
The sudden coolness of the shade washed a wave of dizziness over him. He fell heavily into the nearest tree, hoping the bite of rough bark might jolt him awake. He briefly pondered fainting forward into the stream but resolved instead to make do with only dunking his head. He knew that his recent luck might well lead to a rather damp death.
“And what good would I be were I drowned?” he asked himself. He shook his head and laughed bitterly. “What good am I now, for that matter? Here I am, stranded in the north-most South, without horse or hope. What chance I have saving the son of my friend? Were the sun to bake my brain further, I might begin to speak to myself aloud.” He smiled to himself. Maybe it was an old jest, but gallows’ humour was all he had at the moment.
Pushing off, he swayed over to the creek and fell to his knees before it. He bent over and lapped up the blessed water like a dog. It was hard not to drink too quickly. He alternated between splashing his face and shoulders and long grateful gulps. By the time he finished, he was soaked to the skin.
Scooping sand out of the creek bed, he scrubbed his face and hands. Red-brown dye swirled and flowed away like old blood. It was probably not a wise choice to rub out his disguise, but the sticky tannin was one more indignity than he felt he could bear at that moment.
Quenching his thirst made him realize how hungry he was. Searching the contents of his pack, he unearthed a neatly wrapped package containing strips of dried meat. He leaned against the wide base of an oak and munched contentedly. Letting the tension seep out of his body, he allowed himself to relax for the first time in weeks.
Only the clatter of hooves saved the ranger from falling asleep. The light, fast rhythm of the errand rider’s step rang though the still air. From the sound, it was but a single rider, still at a goodly distance to the North.
Aragorn started awake, scrambling to his feet. In his haste, he upset the pack on his lap. The contents scattered across the glade. Hastily thrusting them back in; he found a length of rope. The coils did their best to tangle with the pack as he tried to throw them both on his shoulders at once, all while he sprinted towards the far edge of the grove. With every stride, the coarse fibres of the rope dug into skin of his neck. He thought longingly of the silky smooth cords that Elrond’s people wove. Still, this was not bad for the work of mortals, having strength enough to hold the weight two men, while remaining light enough to carry.
He slowed his pace as he neared the edge of the trees. Squinting to block the sudden strength of sunlight, he saw yet another stretch of scrub-covered plane. Over it, the paved rode ran to a green shadow that marked the start of the wooded slopes of South Ithilien.
A lone rider approached at a slow canter, heading straight towards the ranger. Aragorn had to stifle the urge to hide deeper amongst the trees. He knew that in the shade of the grove, his dust brown grab hid him form all eyes. His nerves simply had trouble believing that.
He retreated back along the path about twenty paces. There he found the two strong young trees he had taken note of earlier. His fingers tied the knots almost unconsciously as he fastened one end of the rope around the first tree. When it was secure around the smooth white bark, he pulled it tight. Repeating the action on the second tree, he created a taut barrier at chest-height across the road.
He slipped behind a broad oak, unsheathing his sword as he went.
Not the most honourable of tactics, he thought, but time allows for nothing else.
He sighed and settled back onto his haunches. The lush bushes that surrounded the tree allowed him to keep watch on the roadway, while screening him from view.
The ring of iron against stone grew louder. The rider had entered the grove.
It would only be a few moments now.
One of those moments later, Aragorn captured his first close sight of rider. It was another Haradrim, a young man of perhaps seventeen years. His thick black hair was long and greased back into a tail. He wore the colours of the company that currently held the North-most outpost, the one that had taken Denethor. Aragorn watched as the other man came closer still. Though he sat straight in his saddle, his attention was obviously elsewhere. His black eyes held the distant look of one who is thinking of home.
The rope caught the young Haradrim squarely in the ribs, carrying him free of his mount. The horse reared in alarm, startled at the sudden loss of her rider. The back of her neck struck the unyielding line, panicking her even further. The rider rolled frantically to the side. He barely missed being crushed by his mount as she fell.
Aragorn sprang forward. The horse was just staging to her feet, shaking her head in confusion. Catching her bridle in his left hand, he yanked down, keeping her on her knees. With his free hand he held the point of the blade to the astonished rider’s throat.
The situation was not one that required words, but all the same he snapped: “Do not move!”
The boy froze, eyes wide with fear and shock. His face was twisted into the expression of someone who expected to be eaten alive. Considering the rumours that the servants of the Dark Lord spread, that was probably exactly what he thought was about to happen. Aragorn smiled at him in what he hoped was a reassuring fashion. His “victim” shuddered. The ranger sighed and turned his attention to calming the equally terrified horse.
Keeping one eye on the rider, he touched his forehead against the animal’s. “All is well, my lady,” he murmured. “No harm will come to you. Calm yourself. No one wishes you ill in this land.” Maintaining the soft flow of words, he slowly led her up and forward. When she was standing clear of the rope, he released her bridle.
She started slightly then relaxed. Gently nuzzling his chest, she whickered softly.
He stroked her neck, running his fingers through her coarse mane. “That is right, Lady. Be still now.” Without moving the point, he switched his sword to his left hand. With his sword hand, he fastened a loose end of the rope to the ring on his new horse’s bridle. Now she could not stray more than a distance of five paces.
That is one difficulty overcome; he thought, now to care for the greater one.
The rider had not moved. He lay still on his back, half sitting, with his elbows supporting him. He was facing his captor, and trying to muster some kind of defiance. He looked more ready to shed tears than die bravely. When the ranger met his gaze, he dropped his eyes and whimpered softly.
“Come now, child,” Aragorn said softly, as though still calming the horse. “Stand up. Slowly. Hands over your head. I hold no plan to do you any harm.”
The Haradrim did as he was bid without a word.
Aragorn sheathed his own sword, and then relieved the boy of his, along with two knives. These he stowed safely out of reach on the horses’ saddle. He then completed a more through search of the rider’s garments. As he patted him down, Aragorn could feel every muscle in the boy’s body shaking with fear, but his captive still did not move or speak.
In an embroidered pouch slung over the Southroner’s shoulder, he found what he sought. A pair of tightly wound scrolls, closed with ribbon and wax. One was sealed with red as dark as blood the other an unrelieved black. They bore the stamp of a horned serpent and a crescent moon respectively. These were reports and orders from Minas Morgul.
They made interesting reading. It seemed that there had been some dispute over who had the right to retain Denethor. More than harsh words had been exchanged between the Haradrim captain and the orc chieftain involved. Eventually the Nazgûl had grown tired of waiting and terrified both sides into submission. The writing became unsteady when it spoke of the Wraith Kings.
The Steward’s son had been given into the keeping of Minas Morgul. The company bearing him to the Dark Tower was to leave that evening.
While Aragorn studied the scrolls, the boy had been slowly edging away from him. Aragorn played at ignorance. If the Haradrim flew, he would be one less concern to worry over.
He finished reading and decided to hasten the problem out of his way. Glancing up sharply, he made as if he had suddenly heard a noise.
The boy bolted into the trees.
Laughing softly to himself, Aragorn quickly untied his rope. He had a feeling that he might have need of it later.
The last knot was on the horse’s bridle. He released her and swung into the saddle in one fluid motion. It took a moment to secure his newfound possessions and lengthen the stirrups, but soon he was snugly fitted.
“I dub thee ‘Rána,'” he told his mount, for her coat was the colour of the wondering moon.
Spinning her around, he spurred to the North.