Title: Head Wind
K+ for language
A/N There are no seagulls in this part of middle earth :-)
Summary: A young sailor is taken aback.
A young Corsair slipped through the shadows cast by the moon onto the deck of the dromund. The black sails, some furled and some reefed, seemed to attract the light of Ithil and smother it in the dark canvas, leaving little remaining to strike the deck. He made his way fore and sat behind a barrel, his back to the mast. He had not been seen by those on watch, and he wanted to keep it that way. He had no deviltry in mind, but a ship is not the place to be if you desire solitude, and a marine must enjoy it where and when he can.
The trim raider rode gently at anchor, the sea calm and the headlands of her hunting ground nothing but a dark blur about a mile off the starboard side. It was rare to see her so far north, but her latest captain was bolder—or more foolish—than most, and was eager to take routes frowned upon by cooler heads. So far his decision had been a good one, and the Sable Serpent rode low and heavy, her holds groaning with plunder.
Mehrang saw a small, dark splotch on the deck a little way from his left boot. His thoughts turned to the 'guest' the captain had entertained two nights ago as a little amusement for his men. The creature had been treated better than most, even if it was his blood that decorated the deck, since the captain seemed to think the prisoner would have some value to his superiors. Mehrang tugged impatiently on his short, pointed beard, loathing as always his squeamishness. He had hung back from the circle that had formed around the strange being the raiding party had found. He had even turned his eyes away when soft moans were forced from the fair throat. It would not have done to absent himself altogether; he already had a reputation for over-much thinking and radical ideas. It was just that he had never understood the enjoyment of hurting someone who could not fight back. Sometimes, when there was a need for information, methods needed to be used that were not particularly palatable—but that was just business. The lash, the iron; these had their uses. But for amusement, Mehrang would rather gamble or wench than torment, and he would rather the wenches were willing.
He rotated the toe of his boot until it was rubbing over the dark stain. The being—so slender and frail looking compare to his own robust physique—was an elf, or so everyone had said. Mehrang had to accept their judgment, since he had only heard of elves second or third hand. He had thought that the brutes that ate children would be more fierce and frightening looking. He had gotten a close up view last evening before sunset, when he had been sent down to the brig with a wooden bucket of water and some hardtack for the prisoner. That alone had told him the elf's status and value; prisoner comfort, or even survival, was not normally high on the priority list of the Serpent. The guard had stepped aside and let Mehrang into the tiny cell. The only furnishings were a foul bucket and a little straw stolen from the four horses in the hold. The elf was sitting against the curving wall of the hull, one arm across his midriff in the cautious hold that meant at least one boot had attained the goal of breaking ribs. His head was leaned back against the wood behind him and his eyes were closed. When Mehrang stepped within, bending his neck to accommodate the sloping ceiling, he could tell the elf was aware of him by the complete stillness in an already unmoving form. He spoke roughly in Westron, the cursed tongue of the north, "Here is some food and water, elf, little though you deserve it."
The elf did not move or acknowledge Mehrang in any way, so he shuffled forward a step and kicked a soft-soled boot. "Here, you, I know you're not dead, so show a little respect for your betters and look at me!"
The lashes lifted and Mehrang saw the elf's eyes for the first time. In the gloom of the cell he could not tell what color they were, except that they were not dark brown like his own. They gazed on him with an impassive calm and Mehrang felt a superstitious thrill run shivering down his back. He blustered to cover the uncomfortable sensation. "If you do not want to eat, do not; it is no matter to me. But this is all you will get until tomorrow night. And if you do not know the sea well, I will tell you that the very air you breathe is laden with salt and if you do not drink some water now, by tomorrow eventide you will sell your soul for one sip."
The elf parted his lips as though even that small action was painful and said gratingly, "I cannot get up to get the water. So no doubt you will get to see what price an elven soul will fetch."
Mehrang hissed in frustration. Prisoners were not supposed to behave like this; they were supposed to shake with terror and beg and plead for any small mercy. He lurched forward one short step, the bucket sloshing onto his breeches and boots. He roughly grabbed the crude dipper within and slashed water across the elf's face. The creature gasped slightly and could not prevent his tongue tip darting to catch the moisture now dripping from his lashes, nose, and lips. Mehrang spat, "Beg me prettily and I will give you a proper drink."
"If you do not know a better reason to give me the necessities of life, as apparently you have been ordered to do, then I doubt my begging will benefit me. I will not provide you with entertainment." Even as he spoke, however, he heard a dear voice, a furious voice, in his mind. He had once been in a similar situation, and though he had lived to tell about it, he had been lectured repeatedly about his behavior in captivity. /Illuvatar's Breath! You are the most stubborn – Listen to me! If you are bound and they want you to beg to be unbound, then you bloody well do it! You can regain your pride after you escape, when you fill them with arrows! Damn it, Legolas! You nearly died this time!/ A tiny smile quirked one corner of the elf's mouth as he raised his head. His eyes glittered with defiance, but he spoke quietly enough. "Please give me some water, man of the south."
Mehrang smirked, but did not feel quite the triumph he had expected. Nonetheless, he lifted the dipper to the elf's lips. "Can you lift your hands to take this?"
The elf slowly raised the arm not clutching his ribs and took control of the dipper. Mehrang turned and took a small, relatively clean cloth that had been tucked in his belt, and poured a little water upon it. He took back the dipper and gave the elf the cloth. "Clean yourself as best you can with this; it is all I can give you. Let me have a name to call you." He hesitated, for names have great power and all knew elves commanded magical forces. "It need not be your true name, but I cannot keep calling you 'elf'."
The cloth was passed gently—very gently—over a darkly bruised cheekbone. "You may call me by my true name. It is Legolas. I have only the one, unless you want my father's name as well. It is the only other we elves are known by. You have heard foolish stories; do not believe them."
Mehrang astounded himself by chuckling, "Well, I did wonder if they were really true. If I had mysterious forces at my command, I would not have allowed myself to be ill-used as you were."
Legolas asked wryly, "You think it ill-use then? You were not jeering and urging your bosun on, like the rest?"
Mehrang shrugged, obviously not too concerned. "It is our way. You would have done better to stay out of our hands; it is no secret we use prisoners as we please. How is it you were swept up by the foraging party? You were on home ground, were you not? It should have been easy for you to escape us."
Legolas eyed Mehrang measuringly. Was the marine trying a more subtle tactic to gain information than the ones used a few hours before? "I will tell you, if you answer a question of mine."
Mehrang nodded and Legolas continued, "Have you taken any other prisoners from these parts? Any men of the north?"
"No. I have not been sent out to find food and plunder, but I have seen all the parties return. We have taken few prisoners on this trip. This far north we make fast, shoreline raids only. The locals know to disappear when they see our sails. Now answer my question."
Legolas had closed his eyes as relief washed over him. Aragorn had escaped! He sent a swift prayer of thanksgiving to Elbereth and then turned his attention back to the young Corsair. "A friend and I were traveling together. Although we traversed wild lands, there was little game to be had. We had split up for the day to increase our chance of a successful hunt. I –" The elf gritted his teeth and forced out the damning words. "I was too intent on the chase. The foes we most often fight are scarce in these parts, and I allowed myself to relax and enjoy the day. It was a costly error."
"Do not chide yourself; our raiding parties are known for their stealth." He sighed. "It is why I am not allowed to go along as yet; my captain says I lumber about like a mumakil. I was given twenty-five stripes for it just last week."
Legolas suppressed a shudder at the calm, accepting tone with which the young man spoke of a vicious flogging. "Then I hope for your sake you improve quickly, youngling!"
Mehrang laughed. "It is my intention." He slowly rose to his feet, remembering to duck his head away from the timber that crossed the ceiling. "I must go now. Drink another dipper of water, for I cannot leave the bucket with you."
"Will you come again?"
"No. We never send the same sailor twice to tend to prisoners."
"Wise, no doubt. Then I bid you farewell, Mehrang."
Mehrang shifted on the deck again, rubbing his shoulders hard against the mast. His welts were mostly healed, but often itched abominably. He had kept an eye on the hatch into the lower decks this evening and had watched the sailor who was to take food and water to the elf. The man was apparently not inclined to linger in conversation, for he returned quickly, a small satisfied smirk on his lips. Mehrang felt a desire to check on the elf's condition, but knew he dared not show such interest in a prisoner. Mercy was seen as weakness among the brigands, and he had old scars under the new ones to remind him of that fact. He shrugged his shoulder again, trying to force the elf's last words from his mind. The captive had clasped his wrist as he turned to go and said urgently, "There are other ways than those of your people. There are places where no one but a wicked man, caught out in a crime, feels the lash. There are places where a man who gives a prisoner some comfort need not fear for his skin, or worse. I can –" Legolas' words were cut off by a savage back-handed blow that sent him falling sideways, his broken ribs protesting violently.
Mehrang had shouted for the guard to let him out, and had stormed up the hatchway to the upper deck as though the hounds of hell were upon his heels. Now he stared out over the gunwale, watching the gentle swells glimmer under the moon. He thought of the afternoon, when the sun beating down had caused his mates to remove their shirts, as they worked on deck repairing sail. Every single back and some chests bore marks similar to the ones he now sported. What would the elf's back look like? Would it be smooth as cream under the moon? Had he ever felt the initial bite followed by the burn that grew with each additional strike? What would it be like to live where casual cruelty did not rule each and every day of a young man's life? Just as Mehrang grappled with strange new ideas, he heard the soft plashing thump of something large and soft hauled over the side and onto the deck. His eyes darted to the flying bridge, but the watchman moved slowly, leaning on the railing with bored ease. Whatever had landed on the deck had not been seen by the sharp eyes above.
Mehrang crept on hands and knees, as silently as he possibly could, until he peered around the wall of the cabin before him. The narrow passageway between the cabin and the hull was dark as pitch, being fully shielded from the moonlight. Suddenly there was the briefest flash of some reflection; as if from a knife blade or other metal. Then two white circles appeared one moment and disappeared in the next. But it was enough. Mehrang sprang silently forward, until his face was mere inches from another. The two stared at each other, both with thoughts racing through quick-witted heads. Mehrang felt rather surprised that he was not looking at an elf. Surely this man, dressed entirely in black, with some dark paste on his hands and face, was here to rescue the prisoner. Eyes that glimmered like crystal met with eyes that were the near-black of those who lived in the far south. A knife was held securely between the teeth of the interloper and his gaze was fierce and determined. The blade flashed again as he snatched it and prepared to fight. Mehrang had his own curved knife in his hand but neither moved for long, long moments. A series of pictures flashed through Mehrang's mind: that small smirk on the seaman's lips, the one that promised no good for the prisoner; the sound of boots thudding into something soft; a small smile and a wish that Mehrang's life could be better; and most of all, the expression of calm courage as a head lifted to face whatever new torments a cruel fate had sent.
Mehrang next imagined two possible scenarios. In one, he raised his voice and shouts burst forth over the ship and soon there was another circle gathered around a prisoner. This time the sailors were given free rein, for the new stranger was no elf to be coddled while officers decided his fate. A rope swung heavily from a yardarm and a keening wail pierced the air as one was forced to live and to watch, while the other died.
In the other, Mehrang said nothing, and the man before him slipped silently below. A few short minutes later, he helped the elf over the side and both disappeared forever.
The northerner saw, incredibly, indecision in the sailor's eyes. He concentrated every whit of his compelling personality as he whispered intensely, "I mean you and yours no harm. Let me take my friend and go."
As in a dream, Mehrang heard himself whisper in return, "He is your friend? The elf? Tell me his name, if you are friends."
"Legolas. You have met him? Then you know there is no evil in him, nor anything like it. Let me take him; you will never see us again and we will tell no one we have seen your ship. You may sail safely for home. Let me take him, or I will take your life."
"There will be thirty on top of you before my body hits the deck."
"That will hardly matter to a dead man."
Mehrang leaned upon his hands, his mind in utter turmoil. To betray his shipmates to save one elf! One of those who were enemies to his people. And yet…did he want the blood of these two upon him—for he had no doubts that once the man was captured and threatened, the elf would fight until he was subdued by death. They were not at war with the north; at least, not at this time. Did it matter so much if one pathetic prisoner escaped? Once again Mehrang felt long, cool fingers about his wrist. He saw concern—concern!—for an enemy in the eyes that met his so unflinchingly. Would he have tried to help anyone who had used him so brutally? Or did Legolas see something in Mehrang that caused him to take the risk to speak so openly? A risk that Mehrang had repaid with more pain.
Mehrang made his choice. He glanced at the hatch in front of the cabin door and the man nodded gratefully. Mehrang turned and scuttled back to the mast. He folded his arms and feigned sleep. As a gentle snore wafted back to the dripping man, he moved cautiously toward the hatch. Without a sound he slid over the side and disappeared. In accordance with Mehrang's imagination, the Corsair soon saw a light-colored head appear furtively above the hatch, and then two shapes ran for the ship's side. One huddled over the other protectingly, an arm around the slender waist. Short gasps of pain escaped from the slighter figure, but they were not loud enough to gain the attention of the watch. The two slipped over the ship's side, but just before Legolas' head disappeared he locked eyes with the sailor who sat against the mast. Legolas' lips shaped, "Thank you." Then the elf released his grip and was gone. Mehrang watched for several moments before he decided that it would be best if it appeared he had spent the entire night in his hammock. He crept aft and went to the hatchway that led to the crew's quarters, and tried to be as silent as the foolhardy man who was friend to an elf. He did not quite attain that ideal, but he was quiet enough that his shipmates did not know he had ever left his bed.
At dawn he vigorously joined the hue and cry that resulted when the escape was discovered. He commiserated with the guard for his sore head. He decried the loss of so valuable a prisoner and agreed that only sorcery could have snatched the elf from such a secure prison. He was, to all appearances, a young sailor properly outraged at an enemy's daring triumph.
But within, something exulted. Something starved and suppressed, caged with clipped wings, began to beat against the bars imposed upon his soul. Perhaps there was no escape for him, and the elf was more cruel than the bosun could ever be. Or just perhaps, a key had been gifted that at some future time would unlock another prison.
Head wind: A wind blowing opposite to the ship's course
Taken aback: The sails thrown back suddenly by an abrupt change of wind direction.