They saw their first seaworthy vessel a little after their noon-day meal. It was miles off to the north, and heading east. The captain refused to take any chances and lowered the sails to escape notice. His fears proved well-founded when the other ship turned hard to the south.

Captain, are they following us?”



I hope so.”

Ash paused. If they're coming from the west, they couldn't have already heard the news of our escape... could they?

Will they catch us?”

No, they won't catch us.”

Ash stared off the stern at the approaching vessel. They weren't outrunning it. Seconds turned into minutes, then hours. The other ship inched closer. A much larger ship than theirs, a two masted vessel bigger than his father's warships. The captain ordered the sail back up but the wind was not in their favor. He bellowed orders at the oarsmen, then grabbed Ash by the shoulder.

Go below deck and stay there. You must not be seen.”

Ash obeyed without a word.

After a half-hour there was no question that the other ship would catch them. Out on the open sea on a cloudless, sunny day, there was no place for a ship the size of the Heron's Wrath to hide. Still, the captain did what he could with the meager wind, while the mute oarsmen moved in silent unison.

Ash was powerless to prevent what was going to happen. Simon was still tending to Steed, who lay helpless and bandaged in his bed. Damn it. We need his strength. We need him now. Ziggy was wide awake, stringing a bow the captain had found in the weapons cache. It wasn't as fine a bow as the one they'd seized at the Magus Gates, but Fitz's sack had little more than the Empress' box, Steed's black bone mask and a few trinkets Ziggy had snagged on the river. Ziggy was despondent over the loss of the two intriguing pieces of jewelry from Almsraven as well as all of her hard-earned coin. Ash shuddered to think of what Steed might do when he woke up without his piglet Boob.

Right now they had bigger problems. It can't be an imperial war galleon, with its white sails. Who would chase us across the Saltwalk?

His answer came quickly. The braying wail of a warhorn glided across the span of sea between the two ships. Pirates. Raiders. One of the mutes rushed down the steps into the cabin, handed Ash a crossbow and beckoned him and Ziggy to follow. Up on deck the captain was preparing to fight. Crossbows, piles of extra bolts and pots of hot pitch covered the deck. The mute sailors manned their stations on the northern side of the ship.

The captain turned to Ziggy. “I need you to shoot for his sails. They'll be in range soon. Burn them, or we die.”

The larger ship was swiftly closing the gap, a red bull's head flying prominently from the taller mast.

What's that banner?”

The Red Minotaur. Scourge of the northern seas. Tales say they take no prisoners. Surprised to see them this far south.” The captain handed Ash a crossbow and a spear. “You know how to use this, yes?”

Yes.” He'd never used a crossbow before. His father and brothers were well-versed in combat on the open sea, but he had left them too early to learn anything useful. How hard could it be?

He took position near the entrance to the cabins. Damn it, Steed. I need you here. You're more of my father's son than I ever was. If they got past him, Simon and Steed were as good as dead. At least Ziggy is skilled with that bow. The longbow was nearly as tall as she was, Ash noted as the girl enthusiastically skipped to the back of the ship and took cover behind a crate. Ash glanced at his spear. Rusty, and it's not been sharpened for years. This battle is the girl's to win or lose.

The warhorn sounded again, sending a silent shudder across the deck of the Heron's Wrath. Ash stared across the narrow span of sea separating the two ships. Prominently posing on it's bow was one of the most terrifying monsters he had ever seen. From the neck down it appeared to be a tall, lean man, wearing nothing but a blood-red loincloth and sandals. His head was a monstrous red bull's head, with soulless black eyes and a golden ring piercing the snout. He was surrounded by a motley collection of raiders, who, like the mutes aboard the Wrath, were armed with short swords, crossbows, and no armor of any kind. This is going to be a bloodbath. Ash remembered the heavy plate armor his father wore into battle —much of it purely ceremonial— and prayed to Torain to survive this battle intact.

Ash heard a thrum, then another, and within seconds the larger of the other ship's two sails was on fire. Ziggy was so well-concealed that even Ash could not find her on the other side of the ship, but a small stream of black smoke gave away the pot of burning pitch she was using. Thrum, then thrum again, and the second sail caught fire. The raiding crew was ready this time with buckets of salt water. Ash winced as they launched a volley of crossbow bolts at Ziggy's position, and exhaled when they all fell harmlessly short into the calm ocean below.

He readied his crossbow. As the other ship closed into lethal range, several of the mutes dipped their bolts into small buckets of burning pitch. Should I be doing that too? I never got–

FIRE!” Captain Labeen's bearish voice boomed over the waves and a line of tiny comets plunked into the side of the larger ship. Ash felt a surge of adrenaline when some of them caught fire. Most did not. The raiders scurried about, trying to put out the fire in their main mast as well as the new ones on the port side of the ship. The Red Minotaur made an inhuman, metallic sound, and a volley of bolts thudded to the deck of the Wrath. One of the mutes was hit above the shoulder and fell backwards, his chopped tongue flopping wildly in his open mouth. Ash held his fire. I'm not here to hit wood. I'm here to hit flesh and bone and muscle. Somehow, he knew that it would be up to him to kill the minotaur before this battle was over.

The other ship lurched to port to board the Wrath. Even with a hole burning through both sails it was the swifter ship. Both sides exchanged volleys, and a few more mutes fell. A grappling hook whizzed past Ash's head and scrabbled along the deck before grabbing onto the wall less than a foot from the point of his crossbow. He looked over the wall and saw a handful of raiders scampering over the ropes towards the ship. Ash steadied his aim at the raider crawling directly at him —a filthy fellow, just skin and bones, with a long dagger clamped between his teeth— but a split second later a flash of steel caught the corner of his eye and the raider plummeted into the hungry waves below. A heavily-muscled oarsman with skin as black as tar ran down the wall with a sword, slicing the raider's ropes down as he ran. More grappling hooks shot aboard after he passed, and some of the raiders were able to scramble on board. The Red Minotaur, leading the attack, came over the wall.

Ash took aim at the head. The bolt punctured through the target with a grating, metallic scraping sound, emerging through the neck on the other side covered in blood. The minotaur did not fall. With the two handaxes slung onto a leather strap on his otherwise bare back, he whirled like a demon tornado across the deck, slicing friend and foe alike in uncontrolled fury. Ash had no time to reload his crossbow. He picked up his spear and jabbed it at the first raider he saw. The spearpoint sunk into the man's shoulder, then the old wooden shaft snapped like a rotten twig when the raider jerked away. For a breath the two stared at each other in silence until Ash, standing over a foot and a half taller than the man, shoved him overboard with both hands.

Another raider charged him armed with a falchion but a bolt pierced the back of his skull and popped out his mouth before he got within five feet of Ash. The raider fell at his feet and Ash grabbed his thick sword just in time to fend off a blow from another of the raiders. Ash swung at the man's exposed torso and caught his elbow square with the falchion, now wedged into the small man's bone. Ash yanked on it but it wouldn't come loose fast enough so he grabbed the man by his neck and hip and tossed him over the side. They all look the same. Thin, weak, small. I feel like a giant. The heavily-muscled oarsman sliced open another nearby raider from shoulder to waist and a grey mass of intestine spilled onto the deck. The oarsman shuddered and opened his mouth to scream as an axe blade cut deep into his collarbone. He collapsed onto the blood-and-intestine-soaked plank floor. The Red Minotaur advanced towards Ash, a single handaxe raised above his head.

Shit. He's coming.

They stood at roughly equal height at the shoulder. Ash had no weapon and would be chopped by the minotaur's handaxe if he made a move for the oarsman's sword. The Red Minotaur, bleeding heavily from several wounds, rushed at him but stepped in a glob of guts, lost his footing and fell flat on his back.

Now! Ash leapt and landed with his knee on the minotaur's exposed stomach to knock the wind out of him. He pressed into the beast-man while he grabbed the pirate's axe-arm with both of his. The minotaur belted Ash in the face with his other fist, once, then twice, then a third time, while Ash tried to wrest control of the axe.

He's too strong. Not like his little soldiers. Ash's strength started to fail him. He kneed the pirate in his mask with a loud clang. Ash yelled as his kneecap bit into painted metal. The pain was excruciating, but the beast was stunned for a second and Ash punched his wrist to free the axe. The minotaur's grip loosened and the axe slid across the bloodsludge and behind a mute's corpse. Ash turned to see if he could find the straps on the helmet but was met with a heavy fist across his cheekbones which sent him stumbling backwards.

His mouth was filling with blood and his right eye was closing. Ash stood up and looked around for a real weapon. The Red Minotaur did the same, using the dead oarsman as a crutch to get up. The minotaur grabbed the oarsman's sword while Ash frantically looked for a weapon, any weapon, but all he could see out of his one good eye was blood, grey ooze and corpses.

His right eye was swelling up and would soon be useless. He staggered backwards into the thick of the fray, trying to keep his one good eye on the approaching minotaur when he heard the beast-man shriek. A terrible sound, a primal, metallic wail burst from the bull's nostrils. Black smoke began to pour from the beast's eyes and nose as the huge pirate dropped his weapon and fell to his knees. The rest of the raiders paused and watched their leader writhe on the deck.

In two breaths the black smoke turned to jet-black flame. The screams disgusted Ash to his core. Bile rose in the back of his throat. He gritted his teeth and covered his ears. The minotaur's entire body distorted into deformed shapes as his hands fumbled for the metal mask's straps. The man rolled over on his stomach through a pile of intestine and Ash saw a gaping hole in the back of the beast's head issuing black smoke and flames. Simon was standing behind the thrashing form, reloading Ash's crossbow, a small purple vial attached to the bolt.

Simon took aim at the minotaur, but the screams had begun to fade as the metal mask began to melt. A nearby raider threw down his weapon. Simon stared blankly at the unarmed little man, then his eyes widened with a wicked frenzy and he pointed the crossbow at another, who quickly tossed down his dirk. A large purple and black stain spread along the side of the fallen minotaur's face as it liquified into a deformed horror. Silence soon ruled both ships.