Shadow of the Corsairs – Elizabeth Ellen Carter

He thought it was thunder at first, but the boom that echoed around the walls of the prison didn’t rumble long enough for it to be that. Besides, there had been no smell of rain on the breeze. In fact, there had been no wind at all for hours. Boom, boom, BOOM! This time the walls shook. A fine film of white, chalky dust settled over the souls huddled in the compound. Jonathan felt a touch. He looked down at his shackled hands, his skin dark against the thin and sallow hands of the man who lay on the packed dirt floor, breath rattling in his chest. Ludwig Gottleib was hardly recognizable as the man he had been six months ago – all rounded, fat, and jolly. His faded and ragged clothes hung on a much thinner, sicker man. Grey eyes that reminded Jonathan so much of the color of the sky at the end of a cloudless summer day regarded him carefully. “Not thunder,” whispered the German, the harsh accent made more so by his pain. “I know,” Jonathan answered flatly. “A bombardment. We will die here.” Gottleib reached out again, this time gripping Jonathan’s shackled hand tightly.

“If the chance presents itself, my friend, run!” “I cannot leave you here.” “You must!” BOOM! The walls shook once again and some men vocalized panic. Jonathan shook his head to clear it from falling dust. The fusillade was getting closer. “Hör mir zu! Listen…” Jonathan tried to pull his hand away, but the hold was unyielding. A death grip. “You are young and you are strong.” Gottleib drew in a breath which was little more than a wheeze. “Go. And don’t look back if the opportunity presents.

” Jonathan could no longer deny the urgency in the white man’s voice. He placed his hand on top of Gottleib’s and pressed on it gently. “We’ll see.” That seemed to mollify his friend enough for him to close his eyes and cease the restless twitching of his limbs. Jonathan looked around him, depressingly familiar with the thick stone walls that kept men penned in like livestock, ready to be sold to market. He had no doubt that his time would be soon. That was if he didn’t die here first. The slavers hadn’t known quite what to do with him when he and Gottleib had been captured all the way back in the spring. They kept the white man because he was wealthy and well-educated. They waited to see if his family in Germany would pay ransom in exchange for his release.

As for himself, Jonathan expected to face the same fate as the other Africans – chained by the neck and wrists waiting to be taken by ship north to Arabia or perhaps far across the sea – except for Gottleib’s protestations, and the guard noticing that his hands were not callused and work roughened. He never lowered his eyes to his captors, not once. Why should he? He walked the royal courts of Ras Gugsa, the Inderase, regent of Ethiopia, part of the noble line of families who could trace their origins to noble King Solomon himself. The idea that he was equally wealthy and educated as the European had not even occurred to his captors until then. One of the slavers threatened him with vile insults and a clenched fist, but Jonathan kept his gaze locked on his persecutor until the bearded man’s eyes fell away. No. It wouldn’t do for such a man to acknowledge Jonathan’s humanity… BOOM! The walls shook violently and debris the size of hail rained down on them. When the dust had settled once again, a breach had opened up in the wall outside their prison compound. The world beyond it was a conflagration revealed in a thin line of orange. Jonathan watched it, mesmerized for a moment before his mind drew his attention to other facts.

They had not seen a guard since the first salvo – and if he did not move, he would likely be killed under the barrage. Perhaps escape was possible. And perhaps the opportunity had come sooner, rather than later. While he kept his eyes toward the break in the wall, Jonathan squeezed Gottleib’s arm. “Come, friend,” he said softly. “The hour of our deliverance is at hand.” He began to rise, then glanced down at the German. His chest tightened at his friend’s sightless eyes gazing heavenward, his mouth slightly open as though he had seen something wondrous there. Jonathan gained his feet, barely conscious of the reproachful looks some of the other men gave him. If they did not move, Gottleib would not be the only one to perish here tonight.

Jonathan refused to think on it any longer. He surged forward toward the gap in the wall, pulling away stones shaken loose by the cannon shot. If the guards descended on him now, at least he would die on his feet within sight of freedom. Soon, a few other men joined him in pulling away masonry debris until the hole in the outer wall was large enough for a man to squeeze through. He was that man. He hobbled away from the compound as fast as his shackled feet would allow. He gritted his teeth, frustrated by his slow pace, and the fact he had no idea where he was going. Being barefoot wasn’t helpful either. In fact, the only clothing he wore was loose fitting breeches that came to the knees. Ahead of him, the slave market was in ruins.

Rising smoke and dust obscured the twilight. Screams and cries from the injured were as thick as the air around him. Jonathan’s eyes itched and watered. The weight of the shackles on his hands was a reminder that the simple act of wiping his face was a chore not to be underestimated. At the sound of footsteps, Jonathan huddled in the lee of a low stone wall. He watched the shadows approach. One man… no, two. They talked in low tones, furtive, not the sound of guards searching for escaped slaves. He didn’t understand the language, but it was European, not the Arabic of his captors; not the Amharic of his people. He examined the chain brazed to the iron bands on his wrists.

He could only take on one of the men in a confrontation with any hope of winning. The duo drew closer. Just let them go past… He closed his eyes a moment, letting them water to clear the grit. Images of home came unbidden – the magnificent palace of Fasil Ghebbi, the royal enclosure, where for generations his family served in the royal household as advisors; where he spent his childhood walking through the palace courts. Oh, how he dreamed of being home, taking in the magnificent sight of the Ethiopian Highlands, lush and green, and Lake Tana, the source of the Blue Nile – an inland sea dotted with islands on which monasteries had been built. Indeed, it was once home to the Ark of the Covenant. He sent a silent prayer heavenward that he might see it again as the two men passed by without seeing him. Jonathan might have ignored them and continued on his way to the docks where he, if he was lucky, might commandeer a fishing boat to get him away from here, far away from here. Except one of the men said a name. Kaddouri Al Zuebi.

Kaddouri the slaver; the merchant of misery. An anger and hatred that Jonathan had fought to contain for months broke loose from its own prison. If these two weren’t in his employ, then who the devil were they? Jonathan opened his eyes and raised himself up from his hiding place to peer through the smoke toward the slave holding yard from which he had escaped. The two figures had not gone far, only a few yards. Lit by the emerging moon and the fires dotted about them, the men were pale and ghostly, white like the German, but not German by their language. Whoever these men were, they were trouble. The strangers had paused and hunkered down as though waiting for something. That gave Jonathan his first clear look at them. They looked younger than him. Not youths, but young men, they were aged in their mid-twenties, he guessed.

One of them was hidden by shadow, but the clouds parted. The moon spilled her light and it fell on the pale, silvery hair of the man nearest him. He’d never seen a color like it. It was just as well he wasn’t superstitious, otherwise Jonathan would have thought him a ghost. Over the crackles of fires that dotted the town, he heard the unmistakable sound of a gun being cocked. Jonathan spun around and stared into the barrel of a pistol right in his face. Somehow the other European had doubled back unseen and unheard. “Be calm, friend,” the white man said in simple Arabic. “I don’t intend to hurt you.” Behind him, Jonathan heard the slight tumble of pebbles as the ghostly-haired man approached.

This one spoke much better Arabic. “If you’re thinking of escape, then you’re heading in the wrong direction – the shore is that way.” Then he pointed toward the dock to emphasize his point. Jonathan felt his lip curl in an answering sneer. “Perhaps I am not the only one going in the wrong direction. You mentioned a name. Kaddouri. That man will get you killed. Take that as free advice.” The pale-headed man shrugged against his warning and simply asked, “You know where his compound is?” “I’ve just escaped from it.

” Jonathan watched the two Europeans look at one another, as though they spoke without words. The man with light brown hair seemed content to let the other do the talking. As unlikely as it seemed, the nehch feh-rehn-jee, the white-haired foreigner was the leader. “How would you like to join us and have your revenge against your captor?” Jonathan scoffed. “You’re a madman.” “No, I’m Kit Hardacre.” The name meant nothing to Jonathan. “If you are Kaddouri’s men, I will kill you if you try to stop me.” The feh-rehn-jee with the brown hair and the pistol frowned. He looked at his companion as though for instruction.

Hardacre looked ready to laugh at his threat. And well might the man laugh. Jonathan was just one man chained against two armed men. But he meant what he said, having tasted freedom – however brief – he would allow no man to take it from him again, God help him. “I think we can trust this one, Elias.” Trust? What about his trust? Jonathan clamped his hands together, ready to swing a doublefisted blow, when the man called Elias put the pistol in his belt and yet he didn’t move. He stared at Jonathan’s hands and still frowned. “You’ll not get far with those shackles,” the man said in his simple Arabic. “Can you remove them?” the question came from Hardacre, directed to his associate. “We can’t stay here long.

There will be another bombardment shortly, and we don’t want to be here when it happens.” The one called Elias pulled out a small pair of pincers from a utility belt around his waist and held out his hand. Jonathan stared into the young man’s face. His eyes were a light brown like the color of his hair. He hesitated a moment before putting his left wrist into the white man’s hand. Jonathan heard the sound of running footsteps a split second before Hardacre hissed, “Get down!” All three did just that. Jonathan watched Elias work the locking pin as they crouched. It gave with only a little resistance, as did the manacle on the right hand. The ones on his legs were proving more difficult. And the footsteps, accompanied by the sound of jangling metal drew closer and it was more than one man.

It sounded like an armed troop. He glanced at Hardacre and saw the silhouette of his pistol in hand. Jonathan clenched his teeth as his anxiety rose. He couldn’t just sit there and be overrun. He lunged forward, deftly pulling the pistol from the stranger’s belt. The man called Elias stopped working the pin at his ankles. His head shot up, eyes wide with fear. “Trust, remember?” Jonathan whispered, pointing the pistol away. The man held his look a moment then returned to working on the leg shackle. “Time’s running out, Elias,” Hardacre warned.

“Nearly there.” The three men held their breaths as one as the running feet continued past them without pause. “Got it!” Elias breathed. Jonathan rose, feeling lighter and freer – not just in body, but in spirit also. The pain of sores and bruises around his bonds seemed more acute now that the cause of them had gone. Yet it was a small price for his liberty. He handed the pistol to Elias butt first. “If you are not Kaddouri’s men, then who are you?” Hardacre answered, his boyish face pale and harsh in the moonlight. “We two are here to kill him.” The words resonated in Jonathan’s chest as though Hardacre had reached into his very soul and squeezed tight.

“Not two. Three.”

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