5. Chapter 5
Halfway down the steps that wound from the fort to the sea, Imrahil stopped, realising he was alone. Sergion had been right behind him, but now there appeared to be a huddle of figures some way back. He sighed, chaffing at the delay. Little could be seen in the darkness ahead, the only torch he had allowed to be lit was back with the woman, but far below he heard the waves crashing against the rocks. The wind had freshened. He could only be thankful that the Valar must be with them: nothing of what they had accomplished so far – the towing of the boats, or the landings – could have been done in a real storm. But even now he prayed Jibran was right and the quay that served the fort was sheltered enough for the squid-boats to pick them up.
"What's the hold up? Are the wounded managing?" he asked Sergion when his friend caught up with him.
"Yes, it's the woman who is slow; some of the steps are deep. Ohtar tried to throw her over his shoulder, but she wasn't having any of it. The boys are helping her."
He didn't believe this! All their planning and they were hampered by a bad-tempered crone and a gaggle of boys. "If she's not careful I'll tell Ohtar to throw her off the cliff! He won't care."
Sergion laughed. "You don't mean that, and anyway Jibran says she's a wonderful cook. Also, now I've had a second look, I can see she's not that old. I think her legs must have been damaged at some time, life is hard for women here."
Imrahil's ire vanished immediately when he thought of what she must have suffered in the past. "And the boys," he said with a shake of his head. "Why do the sods prefer boys?" They might be slowing him, but he felt for the lads they had rescued, wondering if they would ever lead a normal life.
"I don't think it's a case of preferring them," Sergion replied, curling his lip. "For such filthy bastards any young flesh will do. But girls breed. Which I suppose they don't want to be bothered with up in the fort. I can't imagine a child born there would be likely to live long."
Imrahil's anger kindled again at the thought of the corsairs' cruelty. "My flesh cringes when I think of all the good people they have snatched from our shores." He sighed in frustration, knowing he could do little to help. "I wish we could free more, but let us concentrate on the rest of the job and getting the few we can out of here."
With the others now only steps behind them, Imrahil started the downward trek again. Although shielded from the harbour by an elbow of land, they could risk no more light yet, so had to go carefully. A rope acted as a handhold, threaded through metal eyes hammered into the rock, but he could only see a few feet of it, the rest disappeared into blackness.
It seemed to take an age, the air moist with spray and the sound of the sea drowning out conversation. The boats would never take them off in this! But suddenly the steps turned sharply to the left and within moments the strength of the wind had eased. The rocky staircase, less steep now, ran behind a jumble of large boulders. All of a sudden they were down onto a flat cobbled area. Yards away, inky water lapped against a small dock.
Relieved to have reached water level with no accidents, Imrahil took stock of their surroundings. His heart fell — they were in a cove. He could see the dark outline of the cliffs above him, but the opening faced towards the harbour and the city, not the open water. The sailors coming in from seaward would have nothing to lead them in. And although they had a general idea of the pickup place, they would be expecting a signal.
One by one the rest of the party reached the bottom. The boys huddled together, chattering quietly, eyes wide with apprehension tinged with excitement. No doubt nervous as to what the future held for them. Not a lot if they couldn't get back to the ships! They must have realised, because when it became apparent no boats were waiting for them, they went silent. Imrahil called his senior men around, a couple had extra torches brought from the fort, but even if they lit them all it would be unlikely they would be spotted by their ships.
"We've got no choice, lord," Ohtar said after a bit of discussion. "One of us is going to have to climb over those rocks and reach the entrance to the cove. Try and wave a torch before it gets blown out. They will be looking out for us, so it won't have to be for long."
Imrahil hesitated. The rocks were wet and slippery, and the last thing he wanted was broken bones. Perhaps Thorongil would bring the fleet on in and if they kept a light in the cove it would eventually be seen. But then one of the boys pulled at his tunic to get his attention.
"I can go over the rocks, lord. I do it all the time when I go for shellfish."
Imrahil looked down at the boy; he was small and weasel-faced and wore a ragged tunic. Nothing on his feet, but perhaps that would be better than boots. "You know a way over the rocks?"
The boy nodded eagerly. "Yes, lord. I help Henan in the kitchen. We cook a lot of fish. There's a way between the big'uns if you know where you are going."
Imrahil looked at the woman for confirmation. Even wrapped in a cloak she was shivering, but she cuffed the boy good naturedly. "Proper little rock hopper, this one. He'd be better going than one of you lot decked out in metal."
"Gornon's right, lord," Jibran added his voice. Always clambering after something, he is."
"What about the torch? You'll have to take it." No point in him going otherwise.
"I'm usually carrying a great sack of clams, lord," Gornon boasted with a grin. "Carrying a torch will be nothing. And I can shelter out of the worst of the wind to make a signal."
Imrahil decided to let him go, and gave him a torch and an oiled leather pouch with flint and tinder in case it went out. The boy's thin legs flitted over the rocks as confidently as a crab's. Imrahil watched until he disappeared from sight. Now all he could do was to wait.
Sergion was talking to the boys, they clustered around him looking at his sword, and one had a dagger in his hand. The men settled down, pulling some old crates from a pile to sit on, but Imrahil stood on the edge of the dock, straining his ears for any sound of oars. He could hear nothing other than the splash of the water against the stonework. The noise drowned the footfalls of someone coming to stand beside him.
"What are you going to do, then, if they don't find us?" The woman, Henan, stared into his face.
What indeed? Work their way landwards to the harbour, steal a boat? She would never make it. "They will. Even if they launch the attack first and collect us on the way out." She didn't believe him; he could see the doubt in her eyes. And now he saw her close to, he realised Sergion was right: not an old crone, but a worn out woman, dealt a hard blow by life. "I'll get you out. I promise."
Henan shrugged, looking as though she didn't really care. "Perhaps I should have stayed up there. At least I was warm." She sighed and wrapped the cloak tighter. "But your captain burst through the door all muscle and bright steel, and it was like a dream. A dream that should have come true years ago. I just thought I've a bit of time left and perhaps I could spend it cooking sweetmeats for my nephews and nieces – there must be plenty by now – rather than stirring pots of stew for scum."
Her eyes dropped and she shook her head, limping away from him to perch on a rock. She looked defeated, having had hope waved in front of her only for it to be snatched away. But she would go home! He'd make sure she spent her last years in peace – he swore it.
"The lad must have reached the entrance, lord, I can see the torch flickering." One of the soldiers pointed to the end of the rocky outcrop.
They waited. Each one staring out at the line of surf that marked the opening. Imrahil blinked, seeing what he imagined to be an oar lifting out of the water, but it was no more than the splash of a night-time feeder chasing a meal.
"I thought I heard voices, lord," a young soldier whispered, full of hope.
Imrahil heard them too, blown in on the wind. He saw the torch move; it seemed to be heading back towards them. Had Gornon seen something and shouted? Was he leading them in? He couldn't tell. But then he saw it. No trick of the eyes – he saw the dark shape of one of the squid-boats tossing over the surf.
The darkened ship emerged out of the gloom like a towering cliff. Hushed voices whispered orders as the squid-boats bumped alongside the hull.
Imrahil boarded first, timing his jump to the netting as the swell pushed the two vessels together. He might be confident in managing himself, but he left the difficult task of getting Henan up the side to the sailors, and watched from Windsong's main deck. Taking no chances, they put a sling under her arms and heaved her up over the rail. An old hand, with white whiskers and a pigtail, wrapped a blanket around her and hurried her below. The boys came up next, their faces glowing with elation as they scrambled on board. Clinging together as the wind buffeted their scrawny bodies, they looked around excitedly for a moment before they were led across the deck by a sailor with a shielded lantern. Then it was the turn of the soldiers, hanging on perilously to the netting as the ship pitched in the swell. The injured men were helped by a sailor on each side of them; they would be taken straight to the ship's healer. It had been a stomach-sickening journey through the rough water which had left everyone wet and cold. But safe, for the moment. Who could tell what the rest of the night would bring.
"Nothing looks too serious." Thorongil watched the injured disappear below. Already the squid-boats were being dropped back behind the ship.
Imrahil shook his head. "Bruising mostly, a nasty gash and one broken arm. We got off lightly."
"I was surprised to see your signal so early; you must have taken the fort before dark."
"No, I didn't." Imrahil started giving Thorongil his report, knowing how easily everything could have gone wrong. "… I had no choice but to bring the woman and the boys," he said at the end.
Thorongil slapped him on the back. "I wouldn't have expected you to do anything else. Saving one of those lads from a lifetime of slavery makes our mission worthwhile. Come, you must be cold and hungry. We can talk more out of this wind."
They went to the big cabin under the afterdeck that on this voyage served as a dining hall for the senior men, as well as a command centre. Thorongil opened the door carefully, not wanting to spill light into the night, and closed it before they pushed aside the heavy curtain. Imrahil was hit by warmth, the odour of many bodies and the dank smell of wet wool overlaid with the tang of mutton broth. Henan had been given a chair, but the boys sat on the floor wrapped in blankets and eating out of bowls. Sergion and a few others were in a group standing around the table, which held a basket of hard biscuits and a round of cheese with some oranges. Imrahil's stomach growled.
Thorongil took a bowl of broth from a sailor and passed it to him. "The crew wanted to bake bread when we were in the cove, but I couldn't risk someone on the cliff top smelling it."
Never mind the bread, the stew smelt good. Imrahil smiled his thanks, picked up a biscuit and steeped it in the hot broth. "Anything will do." He ate in between answering Thorongil's questions, but he could tell him nothing else that would be helpful in the forthcoming attack.
Gradually everyone put down their bowls. Captain Arandir came in. They were ready to move up close enough to send the squid-boats in. Loaded with men, pitch soaked cloths and all the other accoutrements required to fire the corsairs' ships, they needed to be towed as far as possible. Thorongil pushed aside the empty basket and spread a parchment out on the table in front of Imrahil.
"This is the layout of the harbour as far as we know. We are expecting the ships to be anchored out in the haven. Captain Arandir says that the berths alongside the wharf are kept for traders. I went through the plan with everyone else today, but I imagine you don't want to stay behind."
Imrahil shook his head, and cast his eyes over the chart. "No, I am coming. But I'll not force the men who were with me today."
"Agreed," Thorongil said. "I am not envisioning much opposition on the ships. From what you said about the celebration in the tower, I am hoping they will be doing the same on shore and only have token guards. We should be able to fire the ships and get back to the dromunds and away before they realise what is happening. If it turns out that …"
"Away…" an angry voice interrupted, "you're just going to fire the ships and leave? What about rescuing the slaves?"
Imrahil swung around; Jibran was on his feet, eyes blazing. "You can't leave them!"
"Jibran, I brought out you and your friends, but we've come to destroy the corsairs' fleet. To make sure it will be a long while before they threaten our people again."
"Your people, Swan Prince? What about the ones already here? Those in the brothels, and the galley slaves kept like animals in the compound. You can't abandon them. Always there has been hope, that one day the blue and silver warriors would come for them. But if you do this they'll know you have been and gone, and their prince has left his people to misery without even trying to help them." Jibran wiped his hand across his eyes, angrily brushing away a tear, and sniffed. "That'll destroy their hope for ever."
Imrahil stared at the boy, his chest leaden. He wasn't really the Swan Prince, that was his father. Did that negate the responsibility? He thought not. But the problems were immense, and not just the rescue – crowded ships on the way home – little food to go around – returning people to their families after countless years. Some would have married again…. The silence thickened. Accusation bored into him. He drew his gaze from Jibran, locking it with that of Henan. Her eyes held the sadness and pleas of a thousand others. Abruptly he turned back to Thorongil.
"Can we do it?"
A slow smile softened the stern face. "We can try, Swan Prince. And my heart gladdens at the thought. But let us look at the likely problems and then I will make a decision."
Imrahil expelled the breath he had been holding, wanting it to happen but somehow thankful the decision would not be his. "We must be quick or the night will be gone."
"Luckily our early arrival means we have a little time. The hours before dawn will hopefully find our enemies snoring peacefully." Thorongil motioned Captain Arandir to the table and together they studied the chart.
The squid-boats would be needed to bring the people out, plus any other small vessel they could lay their hands on in the harbour. This meant the dromunds had to attack the corsair's ships, by flinging blazing shot.
"Will there be room to turn?" Thorongil asked Captain Arandir. Not only might they have to get out in a hurry, but the large catapults were mounted on the after decks.
Arandir didn't answer for a moment; they all waited while he stroked his beard. "No, not once we are close enough to attack. Normally in a crowded harbour the boats are warped around from the quay. We will be out of sight until we reach here." He tapped his finger on the chart. "After we round that promontory the water will become calmer. We will have to let the squid-boats go, turn, and row in backwards."
"You can do that?" Thorongil asked.
"Aye. But it's hard on the men: they have to stand at the oars and push, two wielding each oar. And strength will be needed for the return, there's no way we will be able to sail back through the narrow channel with the wind from the west."
A mumbling came from a group in the corner, it sounded like a muffled argument. Thorongil looked up. "Someone wishes to contribute?"
No one answered. "I prefer those under my command to speak their mind. We can discuss any problems, and after that I will make my decision." He fixed his eyes on the group. "Well?"
Ohtar pushed himself away from the pillar he had been leaning against and took a step forward. "Are you telling us, lord, that you are prepared to risk men and ships to rescue a few slaves and brothel girls?"
"Hold on, Ohtar," another man came straight back before Thorongil could answer. "You're talking about people from Gondor, mostly Belfalas. They are living in hell and we have a duty to try and rescue them if we can."
"They won't all be Gondorians," Ohtar argued. "They could be from anywhere. How do we tell in the dark?"
Imrahil could hardly believe this, he caught Thorongil's eye, intending to put a stop to it by a direct order, but Thorongil shook his head.
"I don't see it matters who they are." Sergion stared at Ohtar disbelievingly. "They need help and we are here. If you see a man set upon by a gang of ruffians, you don't stop to ask his name before you wade in."
"But if we don't go, we won't see, will we?" Ohtar retaliated.
A burst of anger broke out at this, and Ohtar finding the mood of the room against him, put up his hand. "I will of course follow the orders of my prince. But I would like to know we have an escape plan."
"Keep quiet and do your job, Ohtar, and we'll be successful," Sergion snapped at him. "Which means there will be no boats to come after us, and we'll have all the oarsmen needed."
"Anyway," a voice came from the other side of the room. "You were told you don't have to come, Ohtar. You can spend the time chasing rats around the bilges. That should suit you."
The room erupted into laughter. Imrahil's smothered a grin and Thorongil winked at him.
"I'm not one to miss a fight," Ohtar muttered. "But Captain Thorongil said to speak, so I did."
"Very true," Thorongil agreed, "and I have listened." He beckoned to Jibran. "Come here, young man and show me where the slave compound is, and the brothels."
Jibran threw a disgusted look at Ohtar, and came to stand between them. The other boys whispered together, awed by the turn of events.
Thorongil dropped his hand on Jibran's shoulder. "You do understand that we can only rescue those in the port. We haven't enough men to assault the city itself and in fact must retreat before reinforcements come from there."
Jibran nodded, and started to point out the prominent buildings. Thorongil noted down all Jibran told him.
"That's where the Captain of the Haven lives." Jibran laid a grubby finger on the chart. "He's fierce, and even if he's drunk he'll fight … his men are in the building next to him, and then there's a couple of taverns. The compound is along from that."
"Are the slaves chained?" Imrahil asked.
"Only those under punishment, lord. It would be no good for them to do that," Henan offered from her chair. "It's why they don't keep them on the ships if they are in port for more than a couple of days. Muscles would waste and they need them fit to row at speed. But it means they have to keep the compound heavily guarded." She paused and shuddered, her face stiffening with a memory of terror. "It's also where they keep the women and children when they bring them in. Some go off to the city, but others are held back for the auctions. The slave traders from Far-Harad come in every so often, and those they take deep into the desert will never be seen again."
Imrahil watched the men's faces, no dissent now. Even Ohtar looked down at his boots rather than meet her eyes.
Thorongil nodded, taking a few moments before he addressed a shaken room. "Captain Arandir says we can get our ships into a position to make a retreat, and if we are able to release the slaves in the compound, we will have help from them. So I am happy that we attempt a rescue as well as destroy the corsairs' ships."
A murmur of agreement met his words. Imrahil hardly heard it, the problems of the assault already flooding his mind. "We'll need to concentrate our force on the guarded compound," he said to Thorongil. "I am wondering if we can land closer to it. Getting all our men ashore up the harbour wall might be difficult if it is crowded with small boats. I guess there might be many there, as they will be used to get between the port and the ships anchored in the haven. Helpful to us when we come to get the slaves out, but they'll impede a fast landing."
Thorongil looked down at the chart and the plan of the harbour he had made. "The compound is on the seaward side of the port." He pointed to the area bordering it, looking at Arandir and Jibran. "What's here?"
"A beach, if I remember rightly," Arandir answered.
"Yes, lord." Jibran nodded excitedly. "You can get from the beach to the harbour across some flat rocks."
"Good." Thorongil gave him a smile of approval. One couldn't help but be buoyed by the lad's enthusiasm. "That makes thing easier." He talked to the room in general, "The men taking the compound will go in first and land on the beach."
Imrahil was just going to say he would do that, but Thorongil forestalled him with a hand on his arm. Already he knew him well.
"You have done enough. The Gondorian troops will take the compound and I will lead them. Dol Amroth can deal with freeing the rest of those in the port. The other captains will need to be told of the change of plan, but it would be foolish to hang around here for too long. We may be out of sight of the harbour at the moment, but every minute's delay risks us being discovered." He swept his gaze around the men. "Let's move!"
"And I thought we were in for a nice easy little raid," Sergion whispered in Imrahil's ear as everyone headed for the door.
"You obviously agree with it?"
Sergion chuckled. "I do. And I admire the way that little whelp squirmed his way under your guard. He knew just what to say."
To be continued.
This is a work of fan fiction, written because the author has an abiding love for the works of J R R Tolkien. The characters, settings, places, and languages used in this work are the property of the Tolkien Estate, Tolkien Enterprises, and possibly New Line Cinema, except for certain original characters who belong to the author of the said work. The author will not receive any money or other remuneration for presenting the work on this archive site. The work is the intellectual property of the author, is available solely for the enjoyment of Henneth Annûn Story Archive readers, and may not be copied or redistributed by any means without the explicit written consent of the author.