6. Chapter 6
The small vessels bucked and tossed, making it an uncomfortable ride through a gloomy night. Already the leading boats had disappeared in the froth of white water that streaked out from the rocky promontory. Imrahil could see that by the time his force rounded the point and gained the sheltered haven, Thorongil would already be heading for the beach. He glanced back, past the following squid-boats, to where the dromunds laboured bravely. High sterns being forced through the water by strong arms, no doubt accompanied by many an oath and grunt.
But he could hear nothing: the noise of the great oars swallowed up by howling wind and the waves smashing against the cliffs. Spray drenched him, salt stung his lips, but he wrapped his cloak tighter and remained standing in the bow, wanting to be alert to any danger ahead as well as wishing to direct the oarsmen. The men pulling shuddered as another wave spewed foam down their necks. Those not rowing ducked their heads, huddling in the well of the boat. But as the lofty crags gave way to lower outcrops the motion lessened. Suddenly they were through the over-falls, churned up by the outward thrust of land, and the sea calmed considerably.
Imrahil wiped his face and nudged Sergion as the expanse of the Haven opened out before them. The masts of the Corsairs' ships rose like a winter forest against the skyline. "They're packed tighter than salt fish in a barrel."
Sergion grinned. "Set one alight and the others will catch quicker than an oiled rag." He shifted his gaze from the ships to the shore, screwing his eyes. "Can you see if Thorongil has landed?"
Imrahil peered into the darkness. The sickle moon slashed a rent in the clouds, and the beach appeared as a pale swathe beneath the cliffs, but he could see little else. Towards the harbour the odd torch flickered where he imagined the compound must be, and farther on shafts of light spilled from the buildings that edged the dockside.
"No, we must assume all is going to plan and follow our own orders. The sooner we reach the harbour the better." But he refrained from urging the men on, knowing they were doing their best in an unfamiliar role. At the start of any venture his stomach always knotted tight. It would be better once something happened. Sergion probably felt the same, though he'd never said.
"I'll be glad when we get there," Imrahil admitted.
His friend grimaced. "It looks quiet, but I suppose it is too much to hope all are sleeping off a day of excesses."
"I can see no one on the quay at the moment. But even if we get in unnoticed and take them completely by surprise, the minute the dromunds start the attack the whole place will be alerted."
"And those in the city," Sergion agreed. "The Overlord will have armed men under his command, and it won't take them long to reach the harbour."
"Indeed; we must be quick." Imrahil stared ahead, following the last lights of the harbour and on along what he took to be the shoreline. He blinked his eyes a few times, sure he could see the outline of gracious buildings in the distance, or was it clouds. "But it's a shame we are here in the dark, I would like to see the domed city and the great fortress of Númenor."
"Well personally, I'll be glad not to see it any closer…"
"Shush …" Imrahil grabbed Sergion's arm and pointed ahead. A small skiff bobbed in the open water between the quay and the fleet of corsair ships. He could see two men: one rowing, the other sitting in the bow. They only had to look seaward and all surprise would be gone. Suddenly the noise of the oars sounded as loud as the slap of a whale's fluke. Behind, the dromunds loomed like towering mountains! How had he ever thought they would steal in unnoticed?
The squid-boats glided towards the harbour. Voices carried across the water from the men in the skiff. Imrahil strained his ears – they were singing!
Nearer and nearer the raiders crept. He thought they'd got away with it, but no sooner had the thought appeared when one of the men pointed towards them. The singing changed to shouts. Damn! What would the bastards do? Row back to the harbour, or make for the ships? The corsairs hesitated, oars flaying the water chaotically before the skiff started to turn.
Imrahil assessed the distance: who would get to the harbour first? "Pull!" he urged the men at the oars. But they needed no second telling. Backs bent. The boat cleaved a foamy furrow, silver streams of waters flying from the blades. But he had to have more speed! "Unfurl that mizzen sail," he bawled. "Haul it out to catch the wind." A man fumbled with the ties. The triangle of dirty canvas flapped uselessly until someone caught its snaking rope and made it fast to a cleat. The boat's way picked up immediately.
"We'll get there first," Sergion concluded. "But they're likely to rouse someone."
The corsairs were still shouting, but Imrahil laughed. "Don't forget they were singing before, I doubt anyone will notice the difference. "Go straight for them," he called to the sailor on the tiller. "Hit them amidships."
"You're going to ram them?"
"Quickest way of stopping the devils." Imrahil licked his lips, tasting salt. "We'll hardly notice, but they will be in for a cold bath." He drew his sword. "Or something worse."
Realising the bigger boat was bearing down on them, the second corsair stupidly grabbed an oar from his companion. Both rowed frantically. Imrahil was close enough to see the panic on their faces as they tried to manoeuvre out of the way. But, drunk or incompetent, they let the skiff wallow right in the path of the oncoming squid-boats.
They hit the skiff with a splintering of wood. Holding on with one hand as the boat juddered, Imrahil lunged out, but too late. The skiff toppled its occupants into the water before being pushed aside by the forward motion of the heavier boat. The corsairs disappeared, shrouded beneath the murky water. He flashed a grin at Sergion, and gave the order to turn towards the quay.
"Someone on the ships, lord." a voice came from the back of the boat.
Imrahil swivelled around – they must have woken somebody. Figures ran across the deck of the nearest ship. He could only imagine the terror they must be feeling – anchored, fastened in line to their cohorts, and seeing the warships coming for them. But he gave them no more thought; they were too far away to stop him.
The small convoy of squid-boats closed on the harbour wall; Imrahil headed for an open area where stone steps led to up to the quay. As he had thought, small boats clustered along much of the wall's length, bobbing around on the end of long ropes fastened to metal rings, and farther along a couple of lighters jostled for space. So, there were extra boats to get the people out if needed. But how many that would be he didn't know, it depended on what they found in the houses. His eyes levelled to on the strip of buildings that framed the dockside; built of light-coloured stone they crowded together in a straggly row. Some were in darkness, but others flickered light from their windows. At the far end was a tall house with torches outside. One of the brothels, he guessed. But thankfully Tondir had drawn that straw. His job was to gut the taverns and clear the houses that surrounded them.
"Listen!" Sergion clutched his arm.
Imrahil heard the clash of weapons. Great Ulmo! It had started! A scream echoed across the water – Thorongil must have reached the compound. And they were not even ashore.
Sergion pointed. A group of men had appeared out of one of the taverns. Drawing long swords, they rushed in the direction of the fighting, not even glancing towards the harbour.
Imrahil let out a breath. "They must think the slaves are rebelling. They'll find out differently." He dropped the sodden cloak from his shoulders and raised his sword as the boat nosed against the steps.
"Now it's our turn."
The other boats under his command elbowed their way to a place against the wall to discharge their share of men. Tondir sensibly led his force towards the end of the harbour, nearer to the brothels.
Imrahil started up the steps, hearing shouting before he'd even gained the top. As he reached the quay, he saw that the noise of fighting from the compound must have dragged a few more from their drink. His heart pounded: a group of men clustered outside the nearest tavern, by their wild gesticulations towards the fleet he knew they had spotted the dromunds. Although with the squid-boats hidden by the wall, they hadn't seen him yet. Looking behind he signalled Sergion to be quiet before beckoning him forward. A nod of readiness to each other and they rushed the drunken bunch, yelling their terrifying challenge. Already stunned by the threat to their ships, the corsairs took a moment too long to react.
The nearest few went straight down under the force of their attack. More corsairs erupted from the taverns. Screaming obscenities, they launched into the fight, but a heartbeat later the first of the Dol Amroth warriors joined in. And they were only wet, not drink-soaked.
"Get inside and flush anyone else out!" Imrahil bellowed as more of his men arrived from the boats.
One by one, the hardened fighters of Umbar, used to preying on the fishermen and farmers of Belfalas, fell to the sharp steel of battle-honed men. Bodies started to pile up; retribution felt good. This was what he had trained for all his life, and part of him relished doing it well.
Twisting his sword Imrahil pulled it from the chest of a wiry runt with a patch over one eye – the bastard would see nothing at all now.
A lot of shouting came from inside the tavern, but as he ran for the door a soldier hustled out two scruffy women. Dazed by the events they clung together, taking a step backward when they saw all the bodies.
"These want to come with us, lord, but there's one inside who refuses. Evidently they've taken her son to the city." The soldier shrugged. "I've said we can do nothing."
No, they couldn't, but how he would love to come back and free them all…
"Take them to the boats."
Poor frightened rabbits, their faces were pinched with anxiety, but bravely they nodded and followed the soldier. Imrahil wanted to reassure them, tell them everything would be fine, but there wasn't time. Two more women ran towards him from the farthest tavern, looking around bemused when they saw the aftermath of the fight. One stopped, her hand covering her mouth as she stared at the dead corsairs, the other spat on the nearest body.
"Dying's too good for this scum!" she sneered, bending down to rifle through his clothing. But Imrahil grabbed her arm.
"Run to the quay," he ordered. "We have to get you away…"
Wooosh…! Heads jerked up – the first fireball arced across the sky, trailing a tail of sparks. It landed with a crash on a high-stemed galley. A blast of fire shot across the deck. A dead hit! Another and another piece of burning shot lit the night, the lethal mix of wood, oil and fire ensured that flames already licked up the mast of one of the ships, setting the furled sails alight.
Doors along the harbourside opened – men, women, children poured out to stare incredulously at the growing inferno. Some stood awed, but others drew swords when they saw the Dol Amroth warriors. Imrahil waved his men forward. "Kill the corsairs! Tell the rest they can come or stay! There is passage back to Gondor for those who want it."
Sword aloft, a man hurtled towards him, braided hair swinging wildly, lips pulled back from his teeth in a determined grimace.
"You'll die!" he screamed.
"Not yet!" Imrahil hit upwards against his blade with such force that the sword flew out of the man's hands. Another lunge and his opponent sprawled across the stones, his lifeblood seeping into the cracks.
The initial fierce resistance waned under the two pronged attack by the warriors – Tondir's lot were ashore and fighting at the end of the quay. Imrahil saw one corsair go down under the combined assault of a trio of revenging women. But some of the sods fled, to save themselves or get help, he didn't know.
But he couldn't imagine that those in the city had not seen the flame-shot sky. Fires raged from ship to ship. Wood cracked, spitting burning shards into the air. Through the smoke he could see the dark shapes of the dromunds against the glow; two were still hurling their deadly parcels. The others had broken off and would be looking to make the pickup.
"Open up each house," he bawled at his men. "Make sure everyone is out. If there are women who want to stay, let them be!" Some would, they couldn't all be here against their will. A girl, she was only a girl, clutched his arm. Tears streaked through the grime on her face and bathed bruised lips. The sods, what had they done to her! She could hardly speak for shaking.
"You're taking us home…"
"Yes, you must get in a boat, quickly." Imrahil looked round; refugees had started to gather on the edge of the dock – bewildered groups of people stunned by the night's events, they hung on to the soldiers waiting to be told what to do. Most were women and children, although there were a few old men. Used as servants perhaps?
Sergion, take this one." He gently pushed the girl towards his friend. "Get the boats away as soon as they are full."
"There are men coming from the compound," Sergion pointed down the quay.
A whole gang of men, many more than he had imagined. But the ships that now torched the sky red would have needed a continuous supply of oarsmen. Thorongil must have no more room. But already the soldiers were finding it difficult to keep order, the extra arrivals crowding dangerously at the top of the steps.
"Sergion, you take charge over there. They'll be in the water soon. Grab any boat you can. I saw a couple of lighters when we came in. Make use of anyone who can row. The ships will pick them up this side of the point, there is shelter there."
Sergion nodded; he held on to the girl's arm and shouted to some of the soldiers to start loading the boats.
Hearing his captain's commanding voice giving orders, Imrahil felt he could leave the evacuation in good hands, and checked along the line of buildings. Only a few still had closed doors. One looked like a warehouse.
"Break that door down," he ordered a group of his men. "See if you can find anything to feed our guests on the way home."
He moved on to the next closed door. "Ohtar, help me get this one down."
They both put their shoulders into the wood and the hinges gave. But there was no light inside, the house felt empty. Outside again Imrahil saw that the whole harbour was covered by a drifting pall of smoke and a commotion had started amongst the press of people on the quay. A woman, screaming that she couldn't leave, tried to pull herself from two others who were begging her to escape with them. Soldiers went to intervene, but the woman shook herself free and ran headlong along the quay in the direction of the brothels.
"Let her go!" he heard Sergion shout.
Imrahil shook his head as he hastened towards the last building, wondering what awful decision the poor woman had had to make. But before he could aid Ohtar a soldier ran up, saluting him.
"Lord, Captain Tondir says he loaded to bursting and is going to leave. He reckons they'll be here from the city soon."
Tondir was probably right: time to go. "Tell him I'll be right behind. I've one more house to check."
"I can't budge the door, lord." Ohtar called across to him. "But there's light inside."
He ran over to help. It was one of the richest looking houses, with many windows and a porched door made of dark wood studded with heavy nails. Together they battered it, but nothing budged.
"Up here!" A yell came from above them; they stood back and looked up.
"Somebody's at a window, lord."
Imrahil saw a casement open on the second floor. A figure moved around inside the room. They must be locked in or would surely have come out by now. He searched the wall for handholds, but before he could move a string of knotted sheets snaked down. They ended just above his head. The next moment bare legs scrambled over the sill.
"I'm coming down!" A woman's voice, strangely controlled.
"Careful!" He put his foot on the sill. "Let me come up."
But she started to slither towards him, hugging the sheets with her knees. He had an impression of pale skin and a mass of dark hair before a knot slipped and the woman fell.
Hardly time to brace himself – she hit him full in the chest. He managed to hold on to her so that when he fell backwards on the cobbles, his body broke her fall, knocking the breath out of him.
Ohtar grabbed her, hauling her upright. Imrahil got a glimpse of some tantalizing garment before she snatched up the failed sheet and wrapped it around herself. "Sorry. Are you all right?"
A pretty one, certainly worth a few bruises: a heart-shape face, big sad eyes. Imrahil nodded, unable to speak for a moment. He heaved himself up. Pain shot up his leg as he put his weight on his right foot. But it held. "Nothing broken," he managed to get out.
"Good." Her eyes darted across the quay to where the last few people hurried to get down the steps. "Can we go?"
And a cultured voice. A lady? He hadn't heard talk of a noblewoman being taken, but no time to ask. A noxious cloud of black smoke had blanketed the view of the ships, and slowly drifted towards them. He could even feel the heat from the blazing fires. It would not be a pleasant trip.
"Right away. Time to leave, Ohtar. We've done all we can." Imrahil took her arm. "What's your name?"
"Oriel. I …" Her face changed, eyes widening in fear. "Please!" She clutched him desperately, fingers digging into his forearm. "Don't let him take me back!"
Ohtar was first with his sword, stepping out to block the passage of the corsair tearing towards them. Imrahil drew his. That was when he saw the second man coming, long legs flying over the stones. Thorongil?
"He's mine!" Thorongil yelled.
Too late! Ohtar met the man head on, but the corsair outweighed him in stature and skill. Hardly stopping his forward motion, and with two hands gripping the hilt of his great sword he hacked into Ohtar's side. As Ohtar went down, Thorongil rammed his shoulder into the corsair's back. He fell forward but stayed on his feet, and with a great bellow spun around to face his assailant. Imrahil shook off the girl to join in.
But Thorongil halted him. "No! I owe him death!"
Blades clashed in fury, ringing like anvils. Each man's face a mask of hate. The corsair heavier but a mighty swordsman, power behind each stroke. Thorongil taller, leaner, but as hard as tempered steel and nimble on his feet, he let his long straight sword do the work for him, its weight soaking up the corsair's attack. The girl stood like a statue, hand in her mouth chewing her knuckles, watching the battling men.
"Come out of the way!" Imrahil pulled her from the danger of being trampled by a pair of rampaging bulls. He saw Sergion racing towards them and pushed her in his direction.
"Get her into a boat!"
"No! I want to see the devil die first. I need to know he'll never abuse another woman."
The bastard! He hoped Thorongil would slice his guts open. Imrahil grabbed her shoulder and propelled her towards Ohtar, who was trying to struggle to his feet.
"Then help him, and keep out of the way!"
"What's going on?" Sergion had his own sword in his hand.
"Thorongil's determined to finish him off himself," Imrahil replied. "But I've no intention of letting him be killed by a bloody corsair. I'll stay with them; you help the girl with Ohtar."
A great roar came from the corsair as a clever move opened his arm from wrist to elbow, but with no more than a shake of his head he threw himself at Thorongil, catching his sword with his own and using his bulk to push him backwards.
Thorongil stumbled, coughing as smoke swirled around them. Imrahil readied himself to intervene, not at all sure about the outcome of the fight, but the mercenary recovered, parrying the corsair's next lunge. Thorongil was quick, but his opponent surprisingly light on his feet for such a big man. Time after time the swords met, the clash of steel echoing back from the stone buildings. Both men grunted with the effort, sweat ran down their faces. But Thorongil was uninjured, the corsair tired. Blood dripped from his arm forming a dark slick on the cobbles. Suddenly he slipped and his guard dropped. Before he could recover Thorongil forced the corsair's sword wide and brought his blade back, scything it across his enemy's chest. Weakened, but not defeated, the corsair held his injured arm and swept his sword in a glittering, air-singing slice. Thorongil stepped back, let the blade pass and picked his spot. With a triumphant yell, he pushed the point of his sword straight through the corsair's neck. His eyes bulged and he staggered for a moment. Thorongil pulled out his blade and he crumpled to his knees, blood and air gurgling from his throat. He thumped heavily onto the stone, black braids splaying into the widening pool of blood.
Thorongil stood over him, taking great gulps of air. "The bastard killed two good men. Men I had come to love, but besides that, he murdered half a dozen unarmed slaves to stop them escaping."
Imrahil slapped him on the back. "I think we can be sure he deserved death, but if you doubt there is one here who will confirm it."
Ignoring the blood under her bare feet, Oriel slowly made her way towards them, eyes fixed on the inert body on the ground. She must have donated some of her sheet to Ohtar because now it covered not much more than her shoulders, exposing a slim body moulded by a semi-transparent garment. Imrahil averted his eyes from temptation; he didn't have anything to cover her, but she seemed oblivious, staring down at the dead man. A fearsome looking brute with heavy brows and a cruel mouth.
"Who is he?"
She shuddered, wrapping the sheet as close as she could. "The Captain of the Haven."
"And it was from his house you fled?" Imrahil asked.
"Yes." She sounded weary, defeated. "He bought me right off the ship before I was even landed. He always had first choice, no one gainsaid him."
"Then I can only be glad I rid the world of him, my lady."
So, Thorongil had picked up on that. Her attention flew to him. "Thank you, Captain Thorongil." She looked between both of them. "And thank you, Prince Imrahil, your Captain told me who had come to our rescue. Whatever happens in the future, I shall ever be grateful to you both."
Thorongil sheathed his sword; his eyes were filled with compassion. "I think we must prepare to leave. How is Ohtar? Have you managed to staunch the bleeding?"
Imrahil knew Thorongil was striving to take her mind from her troubles, time to deal with them later, and he glanced over to the injured warrior. "Ohtar's on his feet, but then he has the hide of an ox."
"He would be better if he had not changed his mail for leather," Oriel answered. "We have bound the wound tightly, but it will need bathing and stitching."
"The fool!" Imrahil glared at the warrior, but understood the man's wish to keep salt water from his hauberk.
"I'll be all right, lord," Ohtar struggled towards them, Sergion propping him up. "If you can get me home."
"We'll go now…"
"We can't." Sergion shook his head. "I had to let the boats go, they were down to the gunwales. There is us and six others left. A boat is coming back."
Damn! The last thing he'd wanted to happen. "Then let's get over there."
He'd been concentrating so much on the fight, he hadn't noticed that the quay had emptied of people. Bodies littered the length of the waterside, curls of smoke whispering around them, but doors that had stood open were now shut. Those staying must have locked themselves in, perhaps wanting to distance themselves from the carnage to avoid reprisals. The place stunk of burning wood and tar. A black cloud all but obliterated the corsair fleet, but the occasional crackling flame shot skywards, staining the smoke red.
The men waiting at the top of the steps straightened up as he approached. They had been watching the fight from a distance and were buoyed up by Thorongil's victory, and the success of the raid, but now their eyes stole to Oriel, taking in her scanty clothing that lifted in the fresh wind. For the first time Imrahil saw her cheeks flush. But he had nothing to give her: his cloak was on one of the squid-boats and there was nothing unless he robbed the dead of some stinking garment.
"Take care of Ohtar," Sergion snapped at the gawkers. He handed the warrior over and immediately turned and ran back to the house where the sheets still hung down the wall. He jumped onto the sill of the ground floor window, reached up and pulled himself onto the roof of the porch. A stretch, with his sword extended at arm's length, and a sheet was cut and hooked.
"I think your captain is playing the gallant," Thorongil murmured.
Oriel thanked the gallant with a sigh of resignation as if she expected more unwelcome attention and tied the sheet around her so only her bare feet poked out. Imrahil moved to her side and took her arm.
"We'll get you home and you can start to recover your life."
"Do you think so?" Her pretty face sagged and she blinked back a tear. "I suspect that when I get home my life will be over."
"What do …"
"Lord! I hear horses."
"Shh… listen," Thorongil hissed as muttering started. They all heard galloping hooves growing louder every heartbeat. "How many?"
"Only a few," Imrahil judged. "The vanguard. But what's coming behind them? They will have sent a force." They needed to get out now, but the boats would barely have had time to drop their loads before starting back. They would be dead men before that. Hoping against hope, he scanned the water thinking he caught the sound of oars, but could see nothing through the thick haze. Giving up, Imrahil peered over the wall to where the flotsam bumped against the stone. "Is there nothing that floats?"
"We used everything," Sergion told him. "They even towed a raft, loading it with men and flour."
"Then we'll have to hold them off for as long as we can," Thorongil said. "That or swim out of arrow range and wait for rescue."
The men mumbled reluctant agreement, but Oriel caught her breath. "I can't swim. But I'd rather drown than stay here."
"Don't worry," Sergion reassured her. "There's plenty here that can. We'll keep you afloat."
Swimming meant removing mail, and what about Ohtar. It would be slow going with him and the girl to deal with. "Look for decent pieces of wood amongst the flotsam," Imrahil ordered. "Anything that will support us." The water would be cold, and limbs would soon cease to function. He looked pointedly at Thorongil. "If there are more than a few then I don't think we have any choice. Others will come."
"Agreed." Thorongil started to undo the straps on his mail. Imrahil did the same. He didn't care about the mail, but his sword contained steel that had cut flesh at Dagorlad and the Battle of the Camp, and he would hate its last resting place to be at the bottom of Umbar's harbour.
"Too late, I think." Sergion drew his sword and almost immediately horses rounded the houses at the end of the quay, hooves sparking on the cobbles. But their riders, armed men with long spears, pulled them sharply to a halt. Keeping a fair distance.
"There's only four," one of the men muttered. "They don't fancy their chances."
But Imrahil was listening to something else. "Thorongil, do you hear that?" At first he had thought it was an echo of the roar of the waves on the cliffs, but now he could hear the regularity of the tramp of feet. Hundreds by the sound of it, moving at speed. No wonder the horsemen were waiting.
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.