Dragonfish plowed through the green and white waves of the Sea of Men, launching salt spray into the whipping wind with every crash. She was a bit smaller than most traders, her hull smooth and round-bottomed. She was laden with trade goods from Geshuan and sat low in the water. At eight knots, she was pushing her top laden speed, a fact that could not be lost on the vessel pursuing her.
On the main deck, sailors assembled ballistae along the gunwales and marines issued heavy blades and crossbows to the men. On the poop deck above, half a dozen officers readied for what was to come next. Only one man watched the preparations below. Satisfied with the crew’s speed and demeanor, he nodded and glanced up at the ribbons dangling from the rigging. The telltales pointed toward the bow; they couldn’t ask for a better wind in which to run. He turned to face his fellow officers.
Malcolm McMarsen stood just under six feet and, like most sailors, was wiry rather than burly. Long brown hair, pulled back into a ponytail, fell out from under a floppy hat. He wore rough seaman’s boots and trousers, and a thick maroon shirt. A thin, well-made rapier dangled from an old leather baldric.
"How far would you say, Mr. Jurem?” Alvin Rinnicker, the ship’s master, asked.
“Half a mile, no more, captain,” the first mate answered.
Malcolm nodded his agreement with the mate. Luka Jurem’s eyes were as good as his own, better maybe. But he’d never tell the man that. He glanced up at the sails. They remained full, the edges straight and taut. He smiled; Rinnicker and Jurem had acquired a fine batch of sailors this time. Likely they could pull this off and make the trip much more rewarding.
“They’re gaining, Mr. Jurem.”
"Aye, sir; they are. They’re larger and sitting a lot higher. I’d guess they have three, three-and-a-half knots on us.”
“Four.” Malcolm spoke. Jurem’s eyes may be better, but Malcolm’s sense of speed was superior.
“A bit beamy, isn’t she, Mr. McMarsen?” Rinnicker asked. He held the ship’s glass in both hands.
“It doesn’t affect her performance, captain,” he answered. “They’ll be on us in minutes.”
“I’m afraid you’re correct.” Rinnicker nodded. “I assume you’re ready for this?”
“Quite.” Malcolm watched the ship’s master’s face for the look in his eye, the one that said that he was also ready. Rinnicker was a merchant, not a sailing man, but he was no coward. Given the choice of becoming prey for pirates or fighting back, he always chose to fight back. That was why he always chose to hire Malcolm as his battle captain.
“Then the ship is yours.” Rinnicker handed Malcolm the glass.
Malcolm accepted it and raised it to his eye. A look through the glass was unnecessary at this point, but he found that one last look never hurt.
The pursuing vessel was similar to theirs: three-masted and with a round-bottomed hull. But it was likely one hundred and ten, maybe one hundred and twenty feet long. The beam was easily forty feet, wider than it need be, as Rinnicker had noted. It flew no flag and sat high in the water. It was a pirate’s vessel, no question. He guessed its top speed at near 12 knots, two-and-a-half knots faster than Dragonfish could move, even unladed. He turned back to face the main deck.
“Boy!” he called.
A young man appeared at the bottom of the gangway that led up to the poop deck.
“Tell the cook to douse the fires in the galley.”
“Aye, sir!” The boy ran off.
He handed the glass back to its owner and looked again at the telltales. The wind remained steady and favorable. In the bow, salt spray filled the air and seawater ran continuously off the jib boom. The deck of the forecastle was drenched. He’d need the best hand he could get at the wheel, not including himself.
“Mr. Jurem, take the wheel.” The mate nodded and went to relieve the helmsman.
As he turned to face the expectant crew, Rinnicker joined him at the rail.
“You need to get below, captain.”
“I thought I’d wait.”
“No, sir. Get below.” He smiled at the ship’s master. “You hired me, and right now I outrank you. Get through this and you can fire me later.”
“Not bloody likely,” Rinnicker said. “Let’s just see if we’re going to bring home something nice.”
“Don’t we always?” Malcolm called out as the merchant left the poop deck. He took a deep breath and looked out over the crew. His marine lieutenant, Silas Bardo, stood with arms folded, watching him. Silas nodded to him. That meant that both groups of men, the sailors and the marines, were ready and waiting.
“All hands ready!” His voice didn’t boom, but could be heard the length of the ship. “Sailors prepare to jibe! Marines to the starboard gun’l! Chasing crew ready the treb!”
One crew ran up the gangway, headed for the stern rail. On the main deck, a group of marines unlocked and cranked the ballistae’s windlasses. The bows groaned as they bent, pulled back into loosing position. Working smoothly, the men locked the cables in place and loaded six-foot spears into launching grooves. The rest of the marines lined up along the starboard gunwale, between the ballistae, holding crossbows of their own. Behind them, sailors reefed the sails and waited for the next order. A trio of young boys ran along the deck, setting open-mouthed ceramic pots every few yards. Inside each pot, hot pitch steamed and popped. Marines dipped crossbow quarrels into the pitchpots or used horsehair brushes to slather pitch on the ends of the spears.
Malcolm nodded, satisfied, and turned to glance at his treb crew. They were attaching a pair of ten-foot trebuchets to the stern rail, but they were bolting the booms too close to the end. Their aim would be off; they’d be deck sweeping.
“Shrouds and sails, lads!” he called, pointing up into the air.
The crew looked up. One of them called out an affirmative, and they began to move the booms. If this were the only mistake the crew made, they’d probably still be fine. So far, most everything was moving smoothly, but then it always did until the first weapon was loosed. The men had enjoyed a quiet trip this time, but the quiet was past. The sidhe had named this stretch of water the Braanscyll – the Sea of Dead Men. Humanity had shortened the name, because it was mostly humans that plowed the waves, and hundreds of thousands of human sailors that slept beneath them. Today Malcolm fully intended to send more mothers’ sons to the bottom.
He gave the ship once last look. His men were ready, the sailors were standing by, the treb crew was nearly finished, Rinnicker was safely below, and his wizard-watchers were in the crows’ nest. Not that he ever expected to find pirates with a wizard on board. A crew that could afford a magus to sling magic didn’t usually need to resort to piracy in the first place. But it paid to be careful. One never knew who’d bring a wizard to sea.
“Mr. Guthrey!” Malcolm called. “Prepare your spark!” A burly man dressed as a sailor nodded to him from the deck.
“I’ll want snakes and dragons!” he added.
“Aye, sir!” Guthrey called out.
He glanced up one last time at the telltales. They had not shifted. Dragonfish continued on its larboard tack, wind on the quarter, moving at a good clip. He looked back at the pursuing vessel; it was within four hundred yards and closing. He could see the heads and shoulders of its crew. He looked back at his men. He smiled wide enough for them to see it. This was a fine batch, and it was time to put them through their paces.
“Jibe ho!” he called out. Sailors hauled lines, altering the position of the yards to change the facings of the sails. Jurem leaned on the wheel. The stern turned through the wind. The ship began to change direction and the men eased out the sails. Dragonfish shifted; her port side rose and the tips of the masts arced through the salt air. The ship turned ninety degrees to starboard as the stern, carried by the wind, slewed around to port. Malcolm gripped the rail in front of him. For a moment, forward motion virtually ceased as the heavily laden vessel’s keel dug into the waves. Their pursuer now faced Dragonfish’s broadside.
“Spark!” Malcolm yelled.
In the forecastle, Guthrey snapped his fingers. Crossbow bolts and ballista spears, all dipped in hot pitch, burst into flame. The marines were ready for it, but a few of the sailors flinched from the sudden fire.
Malcolm drew his rapier and held it over his head. For only a moment, he wondered how many widows he was about to create. Some, he knew. But it was better they were widows of the men he didn’t know.
“Loose!” He snapped the rapier down. The deck shuddered as the ballistae were triggered and the weapons banged against their own anchors. Bolts lanced over the waves at the pursuing ship. Many fell short, flames extinguished as they plummeted into the ocean. A few bolts thudded into the starboard bow and a few others found targets along the rail. The larger spears slammed into the hull, ripped through sailors, and tore through sailcloth. Flame began to rise from spots on the hull and mainmast.
“Marines to the port gun’l!” Malcolm bellowed. “Sailors, prepare to jibe!”
“Mr. Guthrey – snakes, godsdammit!” he roared.
In the forecastle, the burly man raised his arms up, holding them out, like a conductor before a performance. On the pursuing ship, the remaining flames glowed and flared up. The snakes – climbing tendrils of fire – reached out and up from the flames, brushing against lines, sails, and masts. Where the tendrils touched, flames caught and burned. Then the burly mage grinned, smashing his right hand hard into his left. An arc of fire – the dragon – swept down from the mainmast, tearing a path through the vessel’s crewmen. Guthrey had been late on the mark, but he’d come through fairly well.
Malcolm turned back to face the deck again.
“Jibe ho!” he called. Dragonfish shifted again. He grabbed the rail with his left hand and swiveled to watch their pursuer.
“Will we clear?” he asked, just loud enough for Jurem to hear.
“Aye, sir – barely.”
“That’s good enough.”
Wind caught Dragonfish by the stern and pushed her around. The sails filled and pulled the ship toward the starboard bow. The pirate craft raced toward them, crashing through the waves, less than fifty yards away. Dragonfish slew around and went nearly motionless. His stomach flip-flopped. He tightened his grip on the railing and looked up to the sails.
“The luff!” Malcolm roared. “Mind the luff!”
The edge of the mainsail flapped loose for a moment. Sailors furiously hauled the sheet; the luff tightened and the edge went crisp. Dragonfish lurched forward. He exhaled and released the rail. He wasn’t going to be wearing a pirate’s bowsprit up his ass, it appeared.
“Chasing crew ready!” The prow of the pursuing vessel came into view. Its name, Red Wind, was visible for the first time.
“Ready, Mr. Bardo!” he called to his lieutenant.
The jib boom, the forecastle and foremast, then the main deck appeared.
“Down!” He threw himself to the deck, and saw Jurem and the chasing crew doing the same. Below, Silas called to the men to drop. Dragonfish rumbled as two hundred men crashed to the deck.
Red Wind’s bolts and spears hummed over the poop deck, trailing smoke. Burning weapons lashed into the sails and rigging where some caught and burned. Malcolm heard bolts slamming into the stern and hull. Overheard, two long spears went high, tearing through the mizzen sail and vanishing over open sea. He heard a shriek and looked up. A spear had struck one of the chasing crew, lifting him from the deck. He thrashed for only a moment, crying out as he grabbed at the spear in his chest. The screaming stopped the same time he quit moving. Malcolm stood. He hated doing this, but a corpse on deck was far more dangerous to those still living.
“Get that man off the deck!” he shouted. He watched the three remaining crewmen grab the body and sling it over the side. Behind them, Red Wind’s mainsail had nearly passed.
“Trebs now!” Malcolm bellowed.
The triggermen yanked lanyards on the trebuchets. The heavy leather slings snapped, launching their cargoes – thick jagged chains connecting two spiked iron balls – at Red Wind’s mainsail. The chains spun, shredding the portside shrouds. The spikes ripped through the fire-damaged mainsail before catching and tangling in the starboard side rigging. It was as fine a shot as he had ever seen. He cried out for the benefit of those crewmen who could not see:
“Direct hit!” The men cheered.
Red Wind was slowing, nearly crippled. It was exactly where he wanted it. He had let the pirates think that Dragonfish was only defending itself all along, but now was the time to show them that, at no point was his vessel doing anything but controlling the battle. It was a dangerous game to play, but every time they played it, it had proven worth it. It would every time, too, until the first time they failed.
“Starboard side battle stations! Mr. Jurem, bring us before the wind!”
“Aye, Mr. Jurem! Bring us alongside!”
“You think we can take them?”
“Yes,” he said, smiling. “I do.”
Jurem paused. “Very good.” Below them, ballista crews feverishly cranked the windlasses of the weapons.
“Bear starboard!” he called out. Dragonfish began to turn gently to starboard without losing speed. Red Wind moved along beside them.
“All hands – wait for my call!” Malcolm shouted, rapier in the air. The crews of both ships were silent, weapons at the ready. No more than fifty feet separated them.
He scanned Red Wind’s poop deck and found its captain. He nodded as the captain’s eyes found his. It was down to this – one voice against the other. Malcolm smiled and brought his rapier hilt to his chest; they saluted each other. He raised the blade and watched the other captain. It was time to bring this to a close. When the captain’s chest began to swell, he snapped the rapier down and roared:
His voice echoed across the decks a fraction of a second before the other captain shouted “Loose!”
He dropped to the deck and felt, rather than heard, the marines and sailors do the same. The air buzzed again as the bolts and spears raced past. They slammed into the hull, or went skimming over the rail. One heavy bolt shattered the open door of a weapons locker. Another passed harmlessly through the rigging before dropping into the ocean beyond them. He leapt to his feet before most of the marines and sailors could. Only two bodies lay prone and pierced on the main deck.
“Spark!” he yelled. The burly mage snapped his fingers a second time and pitch-covered missiles flared into life.
“Pick your targets!” He paused a moment. “Loose!”
Flaming bolts raced toward Red Wind in a heartbeat. Some of them found homes in the chests and heads of men, throwing them, screaming to the deck. The rest tore through the forecastle and sterncastle, and splintered the masts.
“Dragons, Mr. Guthrey! Boarding parties, prepare to board – grapples and hooks! Mr. Bardo, take the men over on my call!”
Dragons of fire exploded out from the burning weapons. This time, the ship’s mage used them only to sweep through the crewmen. For a moment, Malcolm glanced away from the carnage, but he looked back. He’d given the order, and it was the least he could do to watch as pirates caught in the firestorm tried to get away. Many of those that could still run threw themselves over the side, preferring their chances in open water to almost-certain death on deck.
Red Wind’s mainsails and mizzen sails were useless, burned and shredded. There was little chance it could get away, but little could be too much.
“Mr. Guthrey – the jib sail, if you please! Mr. Jurem, bring us alongside!”
As the ships came together, his marines readied boathooks and grapnels. In the forecastle, Guthrey slapped his hands together. A resonant boom began in the prow of Dragonfish and raced toward Red Wind’s jib sail. The wall of sound shredded the sail and cracked the jib boom.
“Nicely done, Mr. Guthrey! Grapple her, lads!” The marines hurled their grapnels and reached for the pirate vessel’s port rail with the boathooks. Catching on the rail and mainmast, and in the remaining rigging, the hooks tied the ships together. Dragonfish’s crew hauled on the ropes. Mr. Jurem eased over the wheel, bringing them alongside.
Malcolm ran to the starboard rail and grabbed a lightweight crossbow. He cocked it with his hands and slipped a broad-headed bolt into the groove. He scanned Red Wind’s poop deck again, looking for its captain. He was not to be seen. But Malcolm knew he’d be there. The captain would always be there. He grabbed the rail.
The ships’ hulls struck, as marines and sailors made boathooks fast and lashed grapnel lines to cleats on deck. The impact was minimal; Jurem hadn’t wanted to damage the other hull too heavily. He turned and nodded to the first mate. The man’s work was stellar. He’d have to convince Rinnicker to issue him a bonus when this was all over – providing they lived, of course.
“Marines!” he bellowed. “With me!”
Malcolm took three steps back and ran forward. He put his foot on the rail and launched himself at his target.
Continue with Chapter Two - "Dunbar"