Confound this heat! Aragorn thought for the thousandth time that day, it’s supposed to be winter.
They were far enough North that there was now dusty scrub lining the road instead of sand hills. Seeing green again was bracing, but sadly it was not refreshing enough to take even a little of the edge off the heat. A constant reminder that he wasn’t really all that far away from the desert.
All night, he had ridden hard and now his weary steed forced him to a slower pace. The night’s scattered clouds had cleared at dawn, giving the day a dazzlingly bright start. By mid-morning it had started to feel less a gift. Now at noon, it seemed a curse. The sun no longer dazzled; it blazed.
Merran was starting to drag his feet and the Ranger feared that they would soon have to stop and lie out the day’s heat. The urge to speed to Denethor’s aid was tampered by the sure knowledge that any faster pace than this would find himself walking.
Thus they trudged along the road, perspiration running down his face and dripping off his nose and chin. The light bored into his back and neck. He was infinitely glad that he had assumed the disguise of a Haradrim headscarf. A drop trickled down his back, tickling as it rolled over his spine. He reached back to rub it away, arching his back, stretching out muscles stiff from twelve hours’ riding. A lock of dark hair escaped its confinement, falling into his face. It dripped dirty sweat in his eye. He tossed his head, sending it showering over Merran. The horse snorted a tired protest and mimicked his master’s last motion perfectly. The salty spray once again covered Aragorn, now with the added scent of horse.
The Ranger leaned forward and spoke softly into his mount’s ear. “Easy, friend,” he murmured, “just another league. I saw a grove of beach trees from the crest of that past hill. There will be shade and water there. We will soon rest there.”
Merran’s only response was to flick his ear into Aragorn’s nose. You were not bread with swiftness of thought foremost in mind, were you? he thought irritably, rubbing the itch out of his nose with the back of his hand.
Sure enough, when they reached the top of the next raise, he could see the grove below them. His mount, scenting water quickened his pace, and they were soon speeding down slope.
What happened next was a blur. Merran lost his footing. Aragorn felt himself being jerked suddenly forward. Despite the heat daze and his worried thoughts, he managed to keep his seat. A moment later the wiry horse went down. He was forced to throw himself clear, least he be rolled on.
He landed badly. His shoulder struck the worn stone of the road, sharp pain taking his breath away. As quickly as he could, he scrambled to his feet, sword appearing in his hand.
He drew several deep breaths to steady his racing heart, and looked around. The tattered brush on either side of the highway was not nearly thick enough to hide in. The surrounding countryside held no concealing raised of depressions that he could discern. Most importantly, he didn’t feel the telltale tingling in his nerves that came before an ambush.
For the moment he was safe.
Turning his attention to his horse, he let out a cry of dismay. Merran was writhing in pain, left foreleg twisted at a sickening angle. “Ah Elbereth!” he whispered. He closed his eyes, knowing what he must do.
Dodging the flailing hooves, he edged towards the stricken steed. He knelt at his head, out of reach. He waited until Merran’s neck curled towards his belly, then struck a precise blow with the hilt of his sword. There were several more convulsions, then only twitching.
Placing a hand on his mount’s forehead, he murmured, “I’m sorry my friend.”
How did this happen? he wondered. Examining the paving of the road, he found his answer. Someone had painted numerous strips of wood to match the stone and placed them in his path. Turning one over he saw that the underside was coated in a thick layer of grease. It was no wonder that Merran had slipped.
Someone had set a trap on the road. He pursed his lips, considering. This did not strike him as something his own people would do. It also seemed unlikely that the Haradrim would ambush their own highway.
Another thrice cursed assassination attempt. But if that was so, where were the assassins? Why hadn’t they attacked while he was recovering from the fall? Or when he was busy with Merran? It made little or no sense.
“I hate this!” he growled.
He took a long swig from his water flask and pondered what to do next. There didn’t seem to be many options, so he sheathed his sword and started to walk.