How will they remember this little war of ours?
Shall it have a place in the books of history? Will it be titled as a War in the North?
Or perhaps it shall merely be forgotten as but another of endless skirmishes fought by us weary watchers of the roads and homesteads?
And what becomes of a prisoner in our little war?
"Drink." Thorontir urged his prisoner for the third time that windy afternoon.
He was young, couldn't be much more than twenty summers. His face was screwed up with defiance and pain in equal measure, the latter was steadily winning. With a scowl he stretched his head back and whatever point he wished to make dissipated with each refreshing gulp of water he was allowed. Soon he slumped back down again, tied across the rugged saddle of a steed too proud and noble for its master's rugged visage. Pain shot through a broken leg, crushed under the weight of his own horse a few hours ago.
Thorontir drew back again and curled the lips sideways, his mood fouled by the spite he felt reflecting back on him through his captive's gaze. "You are a man of Bree. Why follow a southern warlord who marches with orcs?"
"Quit asking. I won't say a thing." He hissed back, voice no longer husky with thirst. "I'm loyal to Sharkey. Have it finished. I know what you will do." Thorontir turned forward again, frustrated but more so shaken. Who were this man to command such loyalty?
"They are your own folk that this force you serve will turn against. This cannot be said for all bands of outlaws in these lands. You ferry coin to bribe raiders to bring axes and torches to the doors of your own family. These are no friends of yours, these are foes of your very people." The ranger reminded him firmly.
"And what good has this land done for me?" He spat back indignantly. "Nothing! I'm tired of that life, of my folks, of all cursed Bree-land! What do you think it'll ever amount to, if I scurry back to the farm now? Another harvest, another huddle in the cold? Just grand kids to remember me? I won't ever become more than I was, this stinking land won't become more. Sharkey's come to change that, he's going to turn it around to something great." He spoke proudly now, voice thick with passion that could only be genuine.
"And us! We who go with him, we'll do so right beside him. What will you amount to? You're just another brigand. That sack of gold would've meant something, but to you its just more plunder! There's dozens like you. All they get is an early end."
Thorontir weathered the tirade words moodily, drawing a deep breath. Each insult hurled against him sent a jab of hot anger in his breast, twisting harder with each word. His fists clenched, longing for petty vengeance. He exhaled again. "The gold does not interest me. What I must know is your business with Sharkey, who is he? Why do you follow him so eagerly? I am not your true foe, stranger."
"You're talking as my friend? You slew my friend." The prisoner hissed bitterly.
Thorontir felt his rising anger topple away. He searched his heart for where he should find sympathy but found only grim detachment. "We did what we were made to do." His heart sank, troubled by his own words.
Who judges the crimes committed in our little war?
The sun was low in the distance and darkness was looming in as the small band of rangers made their approach to Ost Guruth. The watchers on the walls above squinted their eyes and warily noted the approach of the riders. They recognized the garbs and one of the band's faces and so eased their guard, allowing them past to join their shelter. The Eglain were worldly and suspicious folk but they would not condemn any man to sleep out in the hills and they tentatively knew the armed vagabonds as friends.
Thorontir dismounted and urged his companions forward. "Find the others. I will tend to the captive." Agacyra cast him a concerned look, troubled about the fate of their injured prisoner after hearing the others voice their suggestions. But she lingered only shortly before following the others into the safety of the crumbling old fortress.
Thorontir hung back below the steep stairway and called down one of the watchers, an irritated expression on his face as he came down but it was exchanged with suspicion at the sight of the captive. "What is this? Who is he? What... did you do? What did he do?" The young man sputtered out, his hair covered under a woolen cap and only a few wispy crops of beard on his chin.
"He is a brigand, one of the outlaws. We saw him travelling alongside orcs," Thorontir explained, briskly. He cast a glance toward his prisoner, whom in surprise had settled into sullen silence. "One of the same who have troubled your lands."
"And..." The young watcher stared at the prisoner, barely comprehending the prospect. "What am I.. we to do with him? Why'd you bring him to us?"
"I say we bring him to your healers, first of all. His leg is broken." Thorontir stepped forward, despite reading the protest on the young man's face he begun to heave down the prisoner from the saddle.
Dumbfounded, he couldn't think of anything else to do but to help him.
Together they hauled their heavy load up the stairs under a withering hail of many curses and yelps of pain before finally he was brought into the Eglain's house of healing. The healers, to their credit, tended to him quickly and asked no questions.
"What on earth do you expect that we are to do with him? We can't afford to keep your prisoner for you, we've little ones to feed and the winter is harsh on us as it is." The man who brought the questions was a broad shouldered and aging man, his hair gray and eyes tired. He had introduced himself as Aaron.
Thorontir lost himself in thought briefly, the flashes of mortality he witnessed across the day becoming uncanny. "I'm not asking you to chain him here, Aaron. I'm asking that you tend to his wounds and let him repay his crimes."
"Aghhh! You idiot!" The patient cried out as the sloppy bandages were loosened, writhing in pain.
Aaron scowled toward their would-be prisoner then shot the ranger a dubious look.
"It shall be months before he can walk again. Two years of service in return seems like a fitting sentence for his crimes and for the care you provide him. Put him to work for two years, under close watch. He is young and strong, his leg will heal." Thorontir urged him, his expression tightened for a moment. "I cannot let him go, not knowing his affiliation. But he is young, and he can do better in life. You may have his horse. She took a strike to the thigh but it will recover well. The coin he carried is yours, too."
"We've barely enough to go on as it is," Aaron folded his arms across his chest and grumbled. "And you want us to take on a man that's halfway a cripple! What responsibility is it of ours to tend for the boy? What of your own folk?"
Thorontir wiggled his mouth sideways and shook his head. "That cannot be, we are a wandering folk. You know this, Aaron." His weathered features eased again, heaving a sigh. "I know you to be a good people. I know that you haven't much but you make do with what you have, you waste nothing. This man made a vile mistake but I don't wish to see his life wasted away, there is much good he could still do. I ask it of you to provide him that chance, whether he desires it or not."
"And you ask a damned much! To put our stores and our attentions into a brigand!" Aaron snapped back, but the bluster burnt out quickly. The old man face grew stony, his voice somber. "I've had a nephew of my own who committed to such folly, I know not whether he will ever return to us again. But I despise the idea of even a child so poorly raised having no home to return to. Fine, ranger. Give us the horse and the coin. We'll see what we can do for him, he will give back what we lacking for this winter with hard labour."
"It is all that I ask of you. Aye, a damned much as it is." Thorontir said firmly, then bowed his head and stepped back. He weren't keen to allow Aaron the room to reconsider. "You'll have what we found on him, all of it. Not a copper displaced for my own pocket."
"I expect nothing less. Or he's your issue again." Aaron grunted and nodded grudgingly.
The ranger briefly smiled and flicked his hood back up, already turning for the door. "Farewell, Aaron." The old man offered little in the means of farewell but a half-hearted wave as he turned toward his newest burden with dismay.
Thorontir was out the door and away.
The issue of the prisoner was dealt with. A heavy burden lifted from his shoulders and he felt ease again, despite the grim deeds he had been committed over the past weeks. He was again assured in that doing the things he must do remained only this: what he must.
To slay his wounded foe would have been simple, to finish him off where he lay bleeding. Carrying him with them was a burden for his companions, an added risk, and now a heavier burden for the folk of the Eglain.
But what were this compared to the price of a life?
These considerations would remain as he turned his attention back to matters of the little war he fought.