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81
A Choice of Life and Death

Written for the B2MEM "Response to Disaster" prompt. For Shirebound for her birthday. Beta by RiverOtter.


~~~

A Choice of Life or Death


He lay in the dust, craning his head up to look at the rock face in front of him. He could see a thin film of dampness trickling down it, and he could not drink! For three and a half days he’d gone without water, having exhausted the contents of his water bottle in the first few days he was separated from his company. Why he’d not thought on how difficult it might be to find a stream in this rocky wilderness, here north of the enemy’s now ruined fortress of Fornost, he could not say. Nor had he seen aught that he might have taken for food.

Not that he had any experience in living off the land. He had been born in a village within Angmar to a well-to-do craftsman, and had grown up trading the work of his hands for food and drink. His father had been able to purchase slaves to work his garden, to cook and to clean and keep his family comfortable. Not for the likes of his son to need to learn to tell edible plants in the wild! So he’d learned the Common Tongue that he might help his father’s trade, but had never learned many possibly useful skills.

But then the armies of their dread lord had come through the region, and all young men capable of bearing arms, whether or not they had known any training in the arts of war, were taken to swell the ranks of the Witch-king’s forces for this great assault on the foes to the south. The new recruits, many of them unwilling, were told that the land to the south was lush and rich, and that there would be much chance to plunder the wealth to be found there, and new lands for the taking that those who dwelt within Eriador knew not how to use properly.

“They are barbarians!” they were told. “They slay the children of their enemies without thought or conscience. They would sweep across the borders of our lands to force us to adopt their strange and uncouth ways!”

And the new recruits had believed. Not, of course, that there was any other choice. Disagreement or questioning of authority was harshly punished.

His experience, however, had not been in keeping with what he’d been told. Oh, the lands immediately beyond their borders had been rich enough, but then they had been ordered to follow a road that led through the mountains, and most of the time he’d been in the armies of Angmar since then it had been these stony hills and washes that he’d patrolled. Now and then they would stumble upon a hidden valley, an oasis in the midst of granite walls where they would find small villages with obviously fertile soil. Always these lands appeared well tended, and those folk they’d encountered who’d not fled the rumor of the coming of their ancient enemy seemed stout and healthy enough, their children well kept, their homes comfortably constructed. Never had he seen signs that these folk knew not how to husband the lands they dwelt upon.

But he had seen no villages since he was separated from his company. He had seen no streams. He had seen no crops. He had seen no beasts. He had eaten all his rations the first day and had had no food since, and no drink either.

And now he looked at the thin film of moisture on the surface of the rock and despaired, for he could not drink of it! Why was it fortune so tantalized and cheated him?

He felt darkness taking him, and gratefully sank into it. May the end take me while I am unconscious! he thought as that darkness flowed over his awareness.

*******


“What are we to do with him?” asked a voice using the Common Tongue. “He’s an enemy soldier, after all.”

“So what?”
demanded another. “Chances are he’s been told lies about our side same as most of the others as have been taken prisoners—you know what rot they’ve all been told, about how our side rape women and cut up children’s bodies while they’re still alive and all. It’s obvious as he’s not had proper food for days, and the way his eyes are sunken, I’d guess as he’s not had water, neither.”

The first voice gave a snort of disbelief. “But there’s water right there, dripping down the rock face there!”

“Ain’t no good fer him if’n he’s got no idea as to how to get enough fer a drink from it.”


He felt himself being gently rolled over onto his back, and then there was a hand under his head, lifting it slightly. “Here, you,” he heard. “Here’s a drop or two of water, but no more’n that fer now or you’ll just choke on it, or get sick. You keep this down, and in a moment or two we’ll give you more, understand?”

He cracked open dry eyes, dimly seeing a concerned face above him. He made himself give as much of a nod as he could, and opened his mouth to accept the water offered him, not much, but so welcome. As promised, soon a second swallow followed the first, then another wait before a third was offered.

He was aware there were about three individuals in the party that had found him. The one was attending him, while the others bustled about efficiently to set up a camp.

A fourth arrived, carrying something bundled into his arms. “Lots of foodstuff growin’ round here,” he said. “Wild onions and leeks, some wild carrots back that-a-ways, and dandelions over there. Good stuff for a salad, at least. And I got one of them conies as seems to live ’neath the rocks just east of us. There’s some kinda bird as lives above us, so if’n one drops down enough t’get it with a stone we could have some fowl as well fer our next meal.”

“Good thing, Tunnely,” the one who was tending him said. “’Twill make us a thin stew, mayhaps, but enough t’ keep body’n soul together.”

There was some hammering, and one of the four spoke over his shoulder from the rock face, “There—I have a small cup cut into the rock so we can collect the water to refill the bottles before we go. Good to know we have what we need out here. It’s not much, perhaps, compared to home in the Shire, but it’s enough to keep us on our feet until we’re back with the Prince’s army, at least. And can you imagine they’d planned to give us more rations? As if we couldn’t take care of ourselves!”

*******


They brought him more water, and shared their food with him when it was finished cooking. What amazed him, however, was that none of the four of them came quite up to his chest in height.

“How did you get separated from your own folk?” he was asked.

“I was near the end of the line. There was—there was a rock fall, right in front of me. It fell on those by me, and I stopped and shrank back. There was dust in the air, and many small pebbles. At last it was over, and somehow I was safe and alive. But I know not where the others went—whether they even managed to survive. And I have been lost out here in the wilderness for many days. I could not find food—or water.

“And you—what kind of folk are you? What are you doing here?”

“We were sent out to take messages to the Dwarves, and now bring their answers back to our captains. I’d guess that the rock fall was caused by the Dwarves—they are rather good at it, after all. But then, it could have happened naturally. Rock falls aren't all that unusual within these hills, we've found. Anyway, as we don’t get lost easily, and are good at foraging and remaining hidden from sight, we’re sometimes sent as messengers.”

“As for what we are,” added one of his fellows, “we’re Hobbits. I’m from Bree, and the others is from the Shire. And we come out t’ the King’s need, same as any other soldier in his armies.”

“What do you intend to do?” asked the one who’d been questioning him. “Once you’re better, do you want to go back to your fellows? Not, though, that they’d be likely to welcome you back—I’ve led three of your soldiers who’d been separated the same as you back to their companies, and they were all soundly beaten, and one killed on the orders of the Witch-king.”

“You would lead me back to the Witch-king’s armies?” He was amazed at the thought.

“Why not?” asked the one who’d described himself as being from Bree. “Don’t do much fer the Witch-king’s cause when common soldiers see their fellows beaten and killed as punishment fer bein’ unlucky enough t’be separated fer a day or so. More’n one who’s been found by our soldiers is as much willful missin’ as wounded or captured. Right strange t’ think as so many o’ your folk would rather be prisoners with us than servin’ the Witch-king no more.”

Another commented in bitter tones, “Not what I’d want to serve the Witch-king myself! I’ve heard the tales of them as has left his armies, how he orders those as is hurt or crippled killed just so’s they don’t have to waste food nor time on ’em. Don’t see him there in the healer’s tents, workin’ ’longside the healers like our King nor his son.”

His fellows gave murmurs of agreement.

“Well,” said the first one, “you think on it and let us know. We’re leaving here in the morning no matter what. You can go with us and join the others of your kind who’ve decided they aren’t going to fight any more for Angmar, or you can go back and take your chances with your captain.”

The Man found himself not having to think deeply on it in the end—he had, after all, seen just the treatment described offered by the Witch-king and his captains to his comrades who had been found after going missing or having lost a limb or an eye. What real choice was there between going back to a beating or perhaps even death and the type of treatment he’d been given so far?

When, two days later, he found himself being welcomed into a makeshift camp of prisoners of war where he was granted an adequate cot and blankets within a patched tent, and immediately given a mug of gruel and a ration of small beer, he knew he had made the right choice. “Not for me, death at the Witch-king’s hands,” he admitted to himself. It was certainly not the fate he’d anticipated as he lay, apparently dying, before the trickle of water down the rock face!

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