7. Chapter 7
"Into the water," Thorongil commanded.
"Move!" Imrahil yelled as shock paralysed them all. "Two of you take Ohtar." He grabbed Oriel and pulled her towards the flight of steps. "You come with me." Having rescued her, there was no way he'd let her be taken again. She stumbled behind him, tripping on the sheet. It would have to come off when they got in the water.
"Wait!" Sergion shouted to him just as he put his foot down on the first step. "Look!"
"Great Ulmo!" Imrahil's heart leapt, he could hardly believe it. A huge shape materialised out of the smoke, the swan-head rising from the murk like some fabled sea monster. "Windsong!"
"Saved!" A man laughed with relief.
"She'll never get off again," one of the men cried back. "The wind will pin her to the wall."
"A clever seaman can do it," Imrahil contradicted him. And Captain Arandir was very clever. But could he get them off in time? "It looks as if you'll be spared a cold swim," he murmured to Oriel, as he watched the ship approaching.
Arandir brought Windsong in with her starboard bow canted towards the wall, using the wind and tide to ferry-glide the big ship into the quay. But he would need to get her back through the wind, and there would be no room to use the oars. Imrahil had a fair idea of what he would do and there would be little time to board. "Get ready," he told the others. "We won't have long."
The seamen were prepared with a plank to span the gap, but there was also a great spar protruding from one of the oar slots ready to push the bow back out. Just as he'd thought. "Thorongil, I suggest you get everyone on board. We'll be needed at the stern."
Thorongil nodded agreement and started issuing commands, calling Oriel to his side. Imrahil and Sergion rushed to a bollard further back along the quay. Seamen had a heaving line waiting to throw to them, which came over and landed at their feet. Imrahil grabbed the thin line and together they started to pull the heavy mooring warp across. With a great tug they dragged the eye over the bollard. It could be left to the sailors to winch in the stern and so help force the bow back out, but the sound of hooves on the cobbles made them spin around.
Four of them, spears levelled – seeing the escape going on, the horsemen had decided to attack. Imrahil grimaced, already hefting his sword. "We'll have to hold them off long enough to let the others get on." He took a step forward, wanting to be ready. The horsemen were trotting their mounts down the quay preparing to charge. "But we'll have a fight on our hands." His stomach cramped: a fight they might not win.
"Get past the spears and they're dead men," Sergion muttered, standing by his side.
Imrahil slanted him a forced grin. "Did anyone tell them that?"
"We've practiced for it!"
True, they had. But seeing four well-armed mounted warriors coming for you in earnest was horribly different than the training exercises on the beach at home. He pushed the fears away, refusing to believe he was destined to die here.
Sergion winked at him, and stepped away so they could take the first horseman from each side. It took discipline and training to stay in a line and Imrahil doubted these had it.
"Do you think he'll swop his spear over?" Sergion yelled as four horses charged down the length of the quay. One already led by yards.
"I doubt it." The rider didn't look good enough, which meant they should be able to take him. But they would need the Valar's help with the other three. Imrahil just had time to see there was some confusion at the back of the foursome before two ton of horseflesh bore down on them. The spear was on Sergion's side. The man would be a fool if he threw it, and Sergion should be able to get out of the way. He had to forget him and go for the horse, just as they had practised so often. He didn't like it, but with no more thought he jumped forward, grabbed the reins of the sweating beast as it went by and wrenched its head around. Its rider screamed a curse. The horse's front legs buckled, and it went down, crashing onto the cobbles and sending the man sprawling. Then mayhem ensued.
A firestorm erupted overhead. It took Imrahil a moment to realise blazing arrows were raining down from Windsong's stern. A horse bolted straight past him, too fast for him to react. The other two shrieked in panic as streaks of flame shot around them, their riders desperately trying to bring them under control. One fell, and Sergion was on him before he'd a chance to get on his feet.
"Get out of here!" Thorongil yelled, running towards them, sword drawn. He finished the first rider as he lay on the ground.
Imrahil swept his sword in an arc; the fallen horse had struggled up and gone, where was the fourth? Wild-eyed and lathered with foam, it still held its rider, but the man now faced three warriors. A moment's hesitation, then he yanked the tormented animal around, clattering away down the quay.
"Come on," Thorongil shouted, pointing to the ship.
Windsong's bow had started to swing from the quay as the spar levered against the stone. The plank had already been drawn back on board. Oars appeared through the forward slots as the gap opened, searching for space to bite.
Sheathing their swords, they ran for the stern. Imrahil dived for the mooring warp, hearing the first fearful sounds of the approaching force as he struggled to release it. Sergion added his weight, but the rope was taut, making it difficult to shift.
"Leave it!" a voice yelled from the ship and a sailor started hacking at the rope with an axe.
Down came a net, the sailors shouting for them to jump. The warp parted, splashing into the harbour, and the stern began to swing. "Come on!" Imrahil launched himself, slamming into the ship's side with an agonising thump. Thorongil had leapt with him, but he slipped, clutching frantically at the ropes to save himself. Imrahil grabbed his tunic and held him until he found his feet. Sergion landed on his other side, grunting painfully as he hit the wood.
"Quickly, they've got bowmen."
Imrahil looked back and saw men swarming along the quay; he started hauling himself up, the ropes biting into his hands.
The ship drew away, the oars digging in hard to stop the wind blowing the bow back onto the dock. Imrahil reached the rail, an arrow thudding into the wood next to his ear as hands stretched out to help him over.
"Ahh.. I've been hit." Sergion was only steps behind him.
Imrahil slithered back down to his side. "How bad?"
He sucked in breath. "Just my arm." An arrow stuck out below his shoulder.
Thorongil got the other side; together they heaved Sergion up until a sailor grabbed him from above and pulled him over the rail. Imrahil felt an arrow clip his boot, but the next moment he was dragged over, landing heavily on the deck. He lay for a moment winded. What with Oriel falling on him, and slamming into the ship, his ribs felt like they'd been kicked by a mule.
Wincing, he forced himself to his feet. "Are you all right?" Sergion was sitting on a barrel, white faced.
"Yes, it's only a flesh wound." He probed the piece of arrow still in his arm. "More blood than anything else."
"Then get below and stop dripping it on my deck!" Captain Arandir strode towards them. "And clear that mess up," he commanded a sailor, pointing to the net that had been dumped on the deck, the buckets still full of smouldering wood and the leftover strips of oiled cloth.
Imrahil choked back a laugh, Thorongil inclined his head. "Thank you, Captain, for rescuing us. That was very well done."
Arandir scowled, his white eyebrows drawing together. "Don't leave it so late next time. I had to leave those poor people tossing in the boats when they told me of your plight." He threw a glare that encompassed all three of them. "Plus you cost me a good piece of hemp."
Imrahil burst out laughing as the Captain stomped off bellowing orders to the sailing master to get the oarsmen moving. Thorongil flashed a grin and walked over to Sergion. He had a quick look at his arm and together they made for the stairwell. With his friend taken care of, Imrahil stayed looking back, hoping to catch a glimpse of the ancient fortress as the first light of dawn paled the eastern sky. But he could discern nothing, a low haze hanging over the land. Disappointed, he turned his eyes to the harbour.
The ship had opened up a fair distance from the throng on the quay; a few arrows still winged towards them, but fell short, splashing dispiritedly into the water. Soon there would be nothing for the corsairs to shoot at as acrid smoke from the burning ships rolled across the deck, starting him coughing. Within moments the harbour and its buildings disappeared behind the choking cloud. They were free and clear, for the corsairs had no ships with which to follow or attack. He could safely go to rest, but as he moved, his head spun, the relief of escape making him light headed. He hadn't slept for two nights and his eyes were gritty as well as stinging from the smoke. A drink for his parched throat; food; and find somewhere to lie down – as soon as they had got their quota of persons on board. But first he must check on Oriel, he wanted her to have some decent accommodation.
At the top of the steps he paused. Two boys waited at the bottom looking up at him: Jibran and Gornon. Both grinning white teeth, their urchin faces smudged with soot.
"We helped shoot the fireballs," Gornon told him proudly, not even waiting until he had reached the lower deck. "You should have seen the ships burn. The masts crashed into each other."
Imrahil smiled at the lad's excitement. "I did manage to see a bit of it. You did well."
Jibran fell into step with him, clutching at his tunic. "We saw you bring the horse down. I thought he would trample you, but Captain Arandir said you knew all about horses because you're a knight as well as a prince."
Imrahil laughed. "I had to train hard to do that, but believe me, I was very glad when the Captain ordered the fire-arrows."
"He said that it was typical for soldiers to need rescuing by sailors." Jibran let out a huff of disgust. "But I think it was because you tried to save everyone instead of escaping yourself."
Imrahil smothered a chuckle. It sounded as if he was now in favour. "We could have done with a few more boats, I didn't expect so many."
"You'll find them somewhere to go, lord?" The boy stared right into his eyes. "There'll be room for all of us in Belfalas?"
"A lot will have family to go back to…" He broke off seeing a cloud pass over Jibran's face. "But you all will be found homes; we'll talk about it later. Right now I need something to wash the taste of smoke from my mouth and see the lady who came on board."
"She's already gone to a cabin," Gornon piped up. "Captain Arandir gave her a key."
"Well, in that case I might have the chance to get a drink before we pick up the boats."
Twenty-four hours later and Imrahil felt a lot better, probably because he had slept for most of that time. That was until he moved and his ribs reminded him of the battering they had taken. An examination showed a tapestry of colourful bruising, but a bit of hard prodding persuaded him there were no breaks and he didn't need to strap them – nothing to do but ignore the pain. It was a few hours after dawn and he needed fresh air – the space was hot and foetid with so many crowded below. Sure that the stiffness would soon ease, he left Sergion still dozing and made his way up to the deck, opening the door to a fresh wind. And people. Freed slaves packed the main deck; Imrahil knew some of the men had spent the night there under a hastily rigged canvas awning.
But in spite of the constraints of the accommodation, he could see nothing but smiling faces. Hardly surprising, he felt elated himself for having contributed to such a successful rescue. A job well done with minimal loss. A shame Thorongil had a couple of dead, but they had been revenged. And how! The hostility he had harboured against the mercenary was now replaced with total admiration. Gondor could do with a few more of his ilk in the coming years.
"Imrahil!" Thorongil stood on the afterdeck, wrapped in his customary grey cloak. He certainly showed no desire to proclaim his exalted standing as Captain of Ecthelion's forces. A cheer went up as the men on the deck saw him and Imrahil felt like cheering too, knowing much of the success of the raid belonged to this man.
Acknowledging the exuberant greeting of some of the freedmen, Imrahil strolled over to the steps to go up and join him. As he ascended he realised that the fleet had left the open sea and sailed into a small cove. A moment's thought told him it must still be the coast of Umbar.
"You're moving a bit stiffly." Thorongil said after watching him climb the steps.
"Nothing time won't cure," Imrahil dismissed any concern with a wave of his hand. "What's going on?"
"We need water, so a party is going ashore. They will want some protection just in case, but not from any of your men, they have done enough."
Imrahil nodded and scanned the shoreline. It looked deserted, and he could see why they were going in here: a waterfall plummeted from a high cliff onto the beach below. Voyager had her canvas down, and just at that moment Arandir ordered Windsong's sails to be dropped. Sailors were already rolling empty water barrels across the deck shouting at their passengers to get out of the way.
"We certainly got our share; I hope the food will hold out."
Thorongil grinned. "There's plenty of flour, courtesy of some of your men. In fact we could probably have got away in a boat if they'd left it behind."
"It looks as though it's going to be used," Imrahil retorted. Two braziers had been lit in the middle of the deck and a couple of women appeared from below carrying a large wooden bowls filled with dough. Henan followed them. She limped along, lugging a metal skillet. And then he saw Gornon and Jibran struggling with a wicker basket that brimmed over with glossy silver fish. Some of the other boys ran to help, pushing it towards the braziers.
"They've been fishing!" he said, surprised.
"Up at dawn evidently." Thorongil answered, "The sailors showed them how to trail lines behind the ship. For some reason the fish jump on the hooks."
"They do if the speed is right," Imrahil agreed. "And we have been moving fast; every time I stirred I was aware of the water rushing past the hull."
"A very soothing sound." Thorongil flashed him an amused glance. "It must be why you spent so long in your cot."
"How long have you been up?" Imrahil shot back. "I heard you muttering something to Sergion not long ago."
"Just checking that he had no infection, but he's fine. In fact here he is now."
Sergion emerged from down below, his arm in a sling. But he held the door open and a moment later Oriel followed him out. She still had bare feet, but her lovely hair had been confined to a plait and someone had given her a change of clothing — sailor's breeches and a thick woollen surcoat. In spite of the odd garb she looked entrancing. Glancing around warily she hesitated, but Sergion smiled encouragement. After a few words they went over to the rail together to look at the boats heading for the shore.
"Perhaps he will find out about her," Thorongil remarked. "All I have heard from Arandir is that she is a noblewoman taken in that raid near Linhir. Visiting relatives or something and the carriage lost a wheel on the way home."
"Ah, I thought she was a lady." Imrahil would have taken a bet on it. "So I find it strange her capture was never made known. You would have thought her father, brothers, or whoever, would have been jumping up and down."
"Very true," Thorongil agreed, "but we heard nothing."
Imrahil didn't answer for a moment as his stomach growled: an appetizing smell wafted past him. Fish had been laid out on a metal rack over one of the braziers and Henan, having patted a piece of dough flat in her hands, slapped it down on the skillet that rested on top of the other. Hopefully he would soon get to taste her cooking.
"I'll find out more when we deliver Oriel home," he said as the delicious tang of grilled fish increased. But Henan was hidden from view as hungry people crowded around her. He sighed, knowing he would have to wait. "It's going to take a bit of sorting out when we get to Tolfalas. We will need to put those for Belfalas on Windsong and Osprey. In fact it may be that one of your ships needs to come back to Dol Amroth with us."
"Hmm…" Thorongil mused. "I am hoping that you will agree to put off going home for a while, and travel to Minas Tirith."
What! Not him as well. But that was very unlikely. Imrahil chuckled. "Surely you are not trying to get me to pay court to Lady Mirineth?"
"Lady Mirineth? No. Why, is someone trying to push you in that direction?"
"Our worthy Steward. And he's got my father on his side. Which is why I am not at all keen on paying a visit to the White City at this time."
Thorongil twitched his lips at that. "Ahh….well she is very beautiful and has suitors falling at her feet."
"I have no intention of joining them, especially as I imagine their interest is more to do with her father's riches," Imrahil reiterated.
"True, but anyway, that is not the reason I am asking you. It is a favour to me and one I would ask you to keep to yourself for the time being."
"Oh…well if I can assist you in any way, of course I will," Imrahil answered, intrigued.
"I would be grateful if you will give the report of the raid to Ecthelion and also pass a personal message from me…"
"But why can't you give the report yourself?" he asked, surprised.
Thorongil hesitated a moment, his expression guarded. "Because I'm not going back to the City."
"You're not going back?" Imrahil frowned, not understanding. "Why not?"
"I have other places I need to be. The attack on Umbar was my last campaign for Ecthelion."
"Your last?" It couldn't be. "You mean you are leaving his service?"
Thorongil nodded. "Yes, I am."
"But why?" He couldn't believe it.
Thorongil's face remained impassive, the grey eyes shielding his thoughts. "Other tasks call me. Maybe I l might once again look upon the White City, but I perceive many perils ahead before my feet bring me back to Gondor."
Imrahil's stomach went cold. Had his first instincts about the man been right after all? All his resentment flooded back. "You're moving on, like the sell-sword you are!"
The words came out before he could stop them. He felt let down; the admiration and trust that had been so hard won by the man during their shared campaign had been thrown back in his face. "What is it? Are you incapable of constancy and loyalty? Or have you had a better offer elsewhere?"
He turned on his heel and strode to the rail looking out to see that the boats had landed on the shore. Bitterness soured his mouth. He'd thought he had found a friend, one who would be around to help him in the difficult years ahead as enemies closed on their borders, one whom he could trust as his father aged and more responsibility fell to him. But the man he thought to be dependable and honourable had turned out to be a fraud.
Imrahil stiffened as soft footfalls approached him.
"Imrahil, my loyalty to Gondor is absolute. I understand your resentment, but it is not possible for me to stay here any longer. One day I may return, and if I do, I hope I can count on you as a friend. But for now our ways must part. I am sorry I cannot explain further, I can only ask you to think back on the last few days and remember what we have achieved together. Nothing can change that."
He didn't look around. "I will play your errand boy. But don't ask me to like it."
"Lord! Lord!" Jibran's voice came from behind him. "I have brought you some food."
Imrahil twisted his head and saw that the lad was holding out an offering of a fish wrapped in a piece of flatbread. But all appetite had left him.
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.