The following two stories, "The End of Trading Season" (orig. pub. in Dragon Magazine, July 1993) and "Cap Renvoort's Luck" (orig. pub. in Dragon, May 1994) form a linked story. The first is a straightforward horror/fantasy, the second an attempt at a Patrick O'Brian-esque sea chase in a fantasy setting. "Cap Renvoort's Luck" also marks Liam Rhenford's second appearance in print - my first novel, Fanuilh, was released only a month before the story was published - and sheds a little light on his pre-Southwark days of exile.
The illustrations are by Kevin Ward.
THE END OF TRADING SEASON
Every year, at the end of the trading season, Cobber Waakzam visited Den Huys Island, disappearing up the river as his father had before him and returning in a few days on a log raft with crude baskets full of the feathers that had made his family wealthy. His crew, well-paid and happy in Waakzam's service, never complained or questioned; more importantly, perhaps, they never followed him upriver - Den Huys was dark and foreboding, the pall of silence that hung over it occasionally pierced by what sounded like the screams of women being tortured.
Moreover, the island got its name from an infamous pirate and black magician who was believed to have lived for centuries before being marooned there by his mutinous crew. Sailors' rumor held that the strange cries were made by the ghosts of all the women Den Huys had ever raped, and that the evil pirate's shade held court on the mountain that rose like a funeral mound in the island's center.
Even in a year when the trading season had been difficult and the delays numerous, the crew said nothing as Waakzam climbed down into the little boat with his bundles of trade goods and began rowing himself up the shadowed river, pulling strongly straight for the island's heart.
* * *
Waakzam waited with growing impatience on the dark bank of the river. He hated being late. The trading season was rapidly approaching its end and his last stop, the one he had always thought he could count on, was delayed as well. In the ordinary course of things, the tribe should have met him at the fork in the river, and they should have had his raft made.
Looking down at his little rowboat, its painter tied to one of the many narrow, twisted little trees that hung over the river, the surface of the water dimpled by rain, he sighed resignedly. It made sense. The whole season had been a scramble from port to port, scraping together a decent return, and it should not have surprised him to find the tribe remiss.
It was his fault, in part. He should have been there weeks before. His father had strongly impressed the date of the meeting on him when he was a small boy. "Remember, Cob," he had said on their first trip together up the dark river, "they are only savages. They do not understand contracts or obligations. They understand that once a year, on the first day of rain, I appear out of the sea and offer them goods of great value for certain feathers that happen to carpet their island.
"What's more," he had gone on as his son plied the oars, "we must never be late. The chief insists on it. It seems that if we come any later, we risk interrupting a religious festival that they hold later in the rainy season. And I don't think we want to get caught up in any savages' religious ceremony." Cobber had laughed nervously, imagining bubbling cauldrons into which he would be thrown as a main course.
Every year, year after year, his father had kept the appointment, and when Cobber had taken over his father's small fleet, he had kept the appointment also. Though both father and son had expanded the business, they always remembered that the Waakzam fortune was built on feathers. Cobber himself had come to look forward to the yearly journey upriver, a trip always made alone, as his father had carefully stipulated.
Here he was now, alone, with the goods of great value - trinkets and bolts of cheap cloth - carefully stowed in his rowboat, but weeks late. The first rain was long past, so that in addition to feeling miserable about the season as a whole and about missing the meeting for the first time in over forty years, cold water was perpetually dripping off the leaves above his head and down his shirt. There was also no place to sit: the ground was saturated and, though not quite mud, certainly well on its way.
Den Huys, he decided gloomily, had an evil aspect entirely suited to its name: dark forests bunched over rough, stony ground rising to the high, brooding hill, with a perpetual shroud of mist, while the birds that bore the famous Waakzam feathers uttered their hideous call from time to time.
Cobber waited on the bank for almost an entire day, pacing and fuming at his own bad luck. His back ached from rowing, his feet grew blistered in his wet boots, but he was unwilling to leave. Every few minutes he imagined a noise and peered anxiously through the wet, glistening underbrush, only to be disappointed.
For all his looking, he was not paying attention when the boy finally appeared, running noiselessly through the forest and suddenly appearing before him, out of breath and wild-eyed. He was thin and pale, with the straight blond hair of his tribe. Cobber had been about to give up, to call the season a failure, to launch his boat and bid the miserable island goodbye for a year.
"Blessed boy!" he exclaimed, sweeping the half-naked child up in his arms and hugging him. His exultation quickly faded when the boy struggled fiercely to be released. Waakzam let him jump to the ground, and watched suspiciously as the boy made to leave the bank, gesturing urgently for the trader to follow.
"Hold on," Cobber said, firmly standing his ground. "Where's Boga?" He repeated the name twice, though the boy only shook his head and gestured inland.
"Boga," the boy said, and shook his head again, grabbing at the merchant's hand.
Finally despairing of making the boy understand, Waakzam allowed himself to be led away from the river. He did not give up asking for Boga, but the boy only responded by urging him to greater speed.
Boga was the name of the tribal chieftain's son, or as much of it as he could pronounce. Just as his father had made a great friend of the old chieftain, Cobber had gone out of his way to befriend the chief's son. It was always Boga who met him at the fork, Boga who supervised the building of the raft, Boga who accepted the trinkets and cloth and turned over the feathers, Boga who helped him load both the feathers and his rowboat onto the raft for the trip downriver. He had even become Boga's blood brother some years before, in a ceremony which, though he never referred to it in his comfortable house in civilized Freeport, had moved him very much.
Now, trotting through the wet forest with his blistered feet complaining, he wondered what might have happened to his friend. Life was hard for the tribe, he knew: every year certain faces - often young ones - were missing. Boga, though, was a superbly healthy man, a giant among the tribe and well-respected for his strength and intelligence.
'Maybe an accident?' he thought, stumbling over a root. He tried to mutter a prayer, but the pace the boy had set drove the breath from him, and he had to concentrate on keeping up.
Soon enough, though, he began to see signs of the tribe - a clearing here and there, stubble and discarded stalks indicating that the tribe's few crops had already been harvested. The boy led him on, urging even greater speed as they came closer to the village.
Finally Waakzam stumbled into the broad clearing that was the tribe's village that year. Every year they moved to a different spot, but it always looked the same: a cluster of rickety thatch huts littered with primitive tools for hunting and trapping, the ground beaten down to smooth brown earth studded with stones, small fires everywhere. He paused for a moment at the edge of the village, ignoring the boy's impatience, and caught his breath. It was the same scene he remembered, but the season was different - the rains had now been going for almost three weeks, and the village somehow looked squalid, the huts bedraggled, the fires sputtering smokily under improvised awnings of skins and branches. The people were paler, too; he was used to seeing them just after the dry season, when they looked bronze and healthy. Now the rains had begun to bleach them, leaving them a pale, fishbelly white, somehow spiritless.
What surprised Cobber most, though, was the way they looked at him. There was none of the joy he was used to, the exuberant welcome in the form of whoops and shouting, impromptu dancing, extravagant displays of affection. They certainly noticed his arrival, but none approached him. Some actually turned away, hurrying off to avoid him.
Scowling at the reception, and knowing it was his own fault for being late, Cobber allowed the boy to hurry him through the village to the chief's hut. The tribe parted silently before them, and he felt a little like the condemned men in Freeport, drawn through the streets in tumbrels to their execution. He fought to suppress a shudder, and felt depression settling in on him, as though his being late had brought the rains, had allowed the life to be washed out of the tribe. For the first time in a long while, he remembered the ceremony his father had mentioned, and wondered if he were interrupting it.
The boy led the way to the biggest hut in the village and left him there, disappearing into the rain. Cobber drew himself up and stepped through a wide gap in the thatch.
Smoke filled the hut, but he knew where to find the chief, sitting crosslegged on a skin-covered settee on the left - and to the tribe, lucky - side of the door, out of the draft. The chief was a spare, stringy man and, sitting crosslegged and motionless, he looked like a carven idol of famine.
"Coppa Wazan," he intoned as the trader entered, nodding ponderously, his eyes closing with majestic slowness.
"Slafomir Tokowa," the trader responded, bowing, unintentionally mangling the chief's name as much as the chief had butchered his own.
The interview and its aftermath were as disappointing as any he had ever had. The chief spoke no Freeporter, but he managed to communicate a great deal through signs and repetition and facial expressions, most of which were sad. Boga, Cobber gathered, was dead, though when he pressed the chief to find out how, the old man only shook his head, his eyes misting. When it was finally clear that the chief could not, or would not, tell him how his son had died, Cobber reluctantly allowed the conversation to turn to the feathers. With a morose expression, the chief led him across the muddy village to a small hut, and Cobber went in alone.
Simply woven baskets filled with once-brightly colored feathers reached to the ceiling, but the merchant in him could see that most of them were ruined. They had gotten wet waiting for him, and those he could see were moldy. He did not blame the tribe, decided to give them the goods he had brought anyway, but it was clear that he would make no profit from the stop.
He stepped out of the hut and into a hissed argument between the old chief and the tribe's shaman, a spindly little man with a withered leg and a crutch, wrapped in a ragged leopard's skin. As soon as he appeared, the chief cut the argument short with a terse command and the shaman hobbled away, sparing only a brief glance of distaste for the trader.
Cobber wondered again if he had interrupted the festival. He had noticed no obvious preparations, but the shaman's look of disgust had not been open to interpretation. It all seemed part and parcel of his failure to arrive on time. The rains, the cold reception of the tribe, the ruined feathers, Boga's disappearance - Cobber scowled miserably over them all, feeling guilty, though he knew it was unavoidable. The season had been bad.
Dinner with the chief only served to deepen his depression. All of the usual dishes were served, including the tribe's potent wine, but with none of the customary gaiety. No other members of the tribe attended, so it was only he and the chief, and he found that the old man could not meet his gaze. Eating his food without tasting it, Cobber wondered if he, too, thought the trader's lateness was responsible for all the things that had gone wrong on the island.
The two men agreed wordlessly to go to bed early, without smoking their customary pipe together. Knocking back a last mouthful of the harsh liquor, Cobber excused himself with a bow, and was shown to a hut next to the chief's by one of the old man's wives.
As he searched for sleep on his raised frame of skins, Cobber heard yet another hissed argument from the chief's hut, the shaman's voice high-pitched and threatening, the old man's stubborn. Strangely, the voices, in a language he did not know, filtered by the rain and the intervening thatch, lulled him, and he finally slept.
Nightmares filled his head, visions of torches and solemn faces, of the crippled shaman leering at him, of wet leaves pressing down on him, shutting him in, crushing him.
* * *
Cobber felt rain on his face and heard the voices of those around him before he felt the slaps, though it was the none-too-gentle slaps that opened his eyes. His head felt thick; his brain was wrapped in prickly cotton. The shaman was looming over him, his face twisted in a sneer, grey clouds over his shoulder. Cobber shook himself and struggled to rise, only to slump back, aware now that his hands were bound and that his back was wet and cold from lying on the ground.
The shaman stepped back from Cobber and, with a gesture, set two tribesmen to hauling the trader to his feet. At first his legs refused to hold him, but after a moment's shuffling he brought them under control. The rain was helping to clear his head.
Still supported by the two men, Cobber took in the scene in quick glimpses, shaking his head in between to get rid of the cobwebs.
There were only six of them: Cobber, his two supports, the shaman and a boy who attended him, and the chief, standing off to one side. They were on a wide shelf of rock set in a hillside; a few feet in front of them there was a drop of almost ten feet to another, wider shelf, away from which the thick forest descended into the sea, barely visible in the rain. Behind them rose the funeral mound, the high hill in the center of the island. 'Behind,' Cobber thought, shaking his head fiercely. Though there was no sun to judge, he knew he was on the far side of the island, where he had never been, the hill and the forest and the river between him and his ship.
Once Cobber was awake, the shaman paid him no more attention. He stepped to the edge of the shelf and put out his hand. The boy jumped forward and handed him a skin satchel, out of which came a black square of folded cloth and a horn.
Cobber froze when he saw them; he only brought brightly colored cloth to the island, not black, and the horn looked like the kind used in Freeport sea-hunts. He tried to catch the chief's attention, but the old man avoided his eye, staring stolidly out over the shelf, his face a motionless mask.
The boy provided a long pole which the shaman fixed into a hole bored in the rock; he fixed one edge of the black cloth to the pole and let it hang, spilling its sodden folds down along the wood. It looked thin and worn. There was no wind, and the flag refused to fly, curling around the pole like a snake, but the shaman paid it no attention. He raised the horn to his lips and blew on it inexpertly, producing a weak imitation of a Freeporter call. Cobber winced at the noise; the tribesmen, though, sprang into frightened action. The shaman's attendant suddenly broke and ran, disappearing back up the hill. The two guards hauled Cobber up to the edge, the shaman limping aside to make room.
Though the drop was not much, Cobber tensed himself against the shove he knew was coming, and when the shaman gave a command, he pushed backward as hard as he could. He was strong, and the guards were not ready for resistance; for a moment the three of them hovered at the edge, struggling. Then the chief shouted, and a flock of birds exploded from the forest below them.
The guards dropped Cobber's arms and dashed off after the shaman's attendant. Cutting the shaman's protests short, the chief approached Cobber, pulling a flint knife from his belt.
Aware of the drop behind him, the trader brought his bound hands up, determined to fight, but the chief simply cut the bonds with a single stroke of his knife.
"Coppah," he said, tears suddenly standing in his eyes, and pulled him close, hugging him roughly. "Coppah," he said again, pushing him away. He thrust the blade at Cobber, who took it suspiciously, vastly confused. Then the chief shoved him, and he was slipping from the shelf, twisting, his feet over nothing, his knee banging hard against the stone, and he fell sprawling to the stone below.
He landed poorly, all on one ankle and then down onto the knee he had hit going over the edge, losing the knife in the process. A jolt of pain shot up from his knee, sending him unsteadily to his feet, hopping, cursing. He saw the knife, stumbled over and snatched it, turned to look up at the ledge above him.
The chief was gone; only the shaman remained, and he was glaring down at Cobber with impotent hatred. Cobber jabbed the knife in his direction, and he took an involuntary step backward before spewing down a string of curses. Smiling, the trader turned his attention to the lower shelf.
Grey stone rolled in broken waves to the forest, cracks and small crevasses darkening beneath the rain. There were chunks and splinters of white in the cracks. Cobber prodded one with his foot, and stopped when he realized it was a bone. Behind him, the shaman began to laugh and stifled it when another flight of birds exploded from the forest close to the shelves. He said something in an awestruck whisper that made Cobber spin back to him, but the shaman was already gone, hobbling away into the forest.
"The noose," Cobber said to himself, the words he thought the shaman had whispered. He knew the cripple spoke no Freeporter, but that was what it had sounded like.
With the shaman gone, he noticed the silence, the complete lack of movement all around him. There was only the patter of rain on stone. Slowly, he bent down and picked up one of the bones, running his fingers over it carefully. It was brittle, dirty with age. The others looked equally old; there were no fresh kills, no bones that had not spent at least a year since the last ceremony pounded by the rain or exposed to the sun.
He knew then that he had not just interrupted the ceremony his father had mentioned; he had joined it, had become the main attraction. He was a sacrifice, like the owners of the bones that littered the shelf.
"But what am I being sacrificed to?" The bones did not look chewed, and he had never seen any animals on the island big enough to take on a man. His eyes went to the pole on the upper ledge, and the black flag. Playful gusts of wind tugged at it, pretending to spread it only to drop it before the design could be revealed. He caught a hint of white at the center, but the wind refused to oblige. In any case, he was more interested in how the flag had gotten there in the first place; he knew no one on the island had made it. Like the bones, it was old, the edges frayed and tattered.
Cobber did not have long to consider the mystery; he was a merchant, a practical man, and after a few moment's consideration he set his mind to getting out of the situation rather than unravelling it. The ledge had an overhang, and was too high for him to reach it; the forest on either side looked nearly impenetrable, a tangle of trees and creepers and thick underbrush. That left going forward, down off the lower shelf toward the sea.
He was three halting steps that way, favoring his hurt knee, when the forest in front of him parted and disgorged a man.
At first he thought it was Boga - the shape was right, and from a distance the features looked like his friend's - and started to hop forward as fast as he could. But as the man came further onto the shelf, Cobber stopped and then backpedaled a few clumsy steps.
The man was a vision of Boga risen from the grave. His skin was loose and wrinkled where it had once stretched over powerful muscles; his hair straggled in sparse clumps over a leprous scalp; and where Boga's gleaming smile had once sat, rotten teeth like black corn leered at the trader. Cobber held the stone knife up and waved it warningly.
"Stay away," he said, his voice quavering, and then more strongly: "Stay back."
At the sight of the knife the rotten man stopped his shambling advance, his sagging face twisting in an approximation of calculation.
"What's this?" He lisped horribly, his broken teeth almost inadequate to the task of speech, his voice a thin husk. "A Freeporter?"
Cobber growled low in his throat and gripped the knife so hard his hand shook. Boga spoke no Freeporter, he knew, and the chief had said he was dead.
"You're a sailor," the rotten man lisped. "No! Not a sailor - a merchant!" His lips writhed like snakes and made a self-congratulatory smile. Raising one withered arm, he indicated Cobber's clothes. "You're too well-dressed, and too healthy to be just a sailor. Gods, you're healthy!"
He began to sidestep around Cobber in a circle, forcing the merchant to pivot to keep up. He moved quickly, though his legs were as thin as twigs, his muscles barely-seen cords.
"I'll like being you," he said.
Spinning to keep up with the rotten man, Cobber shuddered involuntarily. "What do you mean?"
"You're my body this year," the carcass explained through his decaying grin. A thought hit him, and he stopped moving, poised between Cobber and the higher shelf. The flag still teased from the staff, puffing in and out as if it were breathing. "Have you been here before?" Cobber did not answer, unwilling to speak, wondering if the stone dagger would do him any good. "You have, I'll bet, and those savages never told me. They never told me!"
For a moment his eyes flashed and he drew up Boga's body into a posture of rage, and then he started sidestepping again, his wretched smile slowly returning.
"You must have been special to them, if you came and went before and they never gave you to me. How long, trader? Three years? Four years? Longer?"
"Forty," Cobber spat. His knee was aching, and the rain had started dripping into his eyes.
"Forty!" The number seemed to stagger the rotten man, but he continued his circle, passing again the point where he had entered the shelf. "You're not forty!"
"My father was here before me," Cobber said. He could not keep his eyes from the figure of his friend's body, the loping sidestep, the feverish glow in his sunken eyes. He felt like a bird before a snake.
"Your father before you! Forty years! And they never gave me your body! I've been here almost eighty, and they've given me one of their own every year! They didn't even argue when I took this one," he slapped Boga's sunken chest, "and he was the chief's own whelp! I picked him out myself, and that bunch of savages just nodded and tied him up for me - but they never sent your father or you. You must be very special to them."
'We were never late,' Cobber thought, but he said nothing, trying to concentrate on revolving, keeping the knife between him and his friend's wasted body. If the chief had to sacrifice his own son one year, a mere trading partner would seem like very little the next.
"But then, they gave you a knife," Boga's corpse went on, "and you're not bound. Maybe they thought you'd kill me." The idea set him to laughing, a reedy cackle that scraped at Cobber's nerves. "They'll have to pay for that. I'll burn their miserable hovels down around their ears." He extended one bony finger and mouthed a word; the wet tangle of creepers he was pointing at burst into smoky flame.
The unnatural fire stunned Cobber. He was not thinking properly, he knew, not planning, not fighting. Things were piling up in his head, questions that fought for attention, beating out his need to get away.
"Who are you?"
This brought a fresh spate of cackles from the corpse. Still circling, he raised his arms grandly and proclaimed, "I am God!" Laughing, he set two more fires in the rain-drenched underbrush.
"You're not god," Cobber retorted, shaking his head. He simply could not think properly; the corpse was ensnaring him in some way. He thought of magic.
"I may as well be," the rotten man went on. "They give me sacrifices, don't they? Though never one so healthy as you. You're fat and strong. And you're a Freeporter - you must have a ship waiting for you."
The circling had brought them around again, with the rotten man between the trader and the flag. Thought of the ship stopped the rotten man, and his eyes went round. "A ship!"
"You'll never see it," Cobber promised grimly, taking a deep breath to steady his head. A real gust of wind swept the shelf, prying the reluctant flag from the pole and revealing its emblem: a crude skull and crossbones, faded and molded with immense age. Cobber understood then what the shaman had said, how he had butchered the Freeporter name. "You're Den Huys," he whispered, remembering the stories of black magic associated with the name.
The rotten man offered him a mocking bow. "The same. In much reduced circumstances, I'm afraid. But once I get your body and your ship, I'll be able to get myself back to Freeport , and then the bodies I take won't rot quite so quickly. With the right supplies, I should be able to keep a body like yours for almost a whole lifetime. You've no idea what it's like to have a body rot under you in less than a year. And besides, a corpse isn't likely to attract the ladies as much as, say, a fat Freeport merchant."
Den Huys bowed again, spreading his skeletal hands, palms up, to indicate Cobber.
With the circling stopped, the trader found his head clearing, and while the corpse spoke, he tried to weigh his chances. Den Huys' last words, though, made his decision for him, and he broke and ran for the forest at the edge of the shelf.
His toe caught in a crack and his knee gave way. He sprawled at length on the rock, keeping the knife at the expense of torn knuckles and a splintered nail. Den Huys pounced on him, faster than he could believe, and hauled him off the ground with a strength that did not reside in the wasted muscles of Boga's arms.
The pirate held him firmly, drinking in the sight of Cobber's healthy body.
"Your ship and your body, trader," he whispered, his lips stretching back to smile.
"I'm damned if I'll let you have my ship or my body," Cobber snarled. His feet dangling in the air, he drove the stone blade into the corpse's bloated stomach. Den Huys did not even flinch, though he stretched his arms out to hold the trader away. A rush of foul gas erupted around the blade, the stench so strong that Cobber had to turn his head and squeeze his eyes shut.
"Trader," he heard Den Huys say, "you're damned anyway."
* * *
At the end of his worst trading season ever, Cobber Waakzam came down the river in his little rowboat, with no feathers. Immense black clouds of smoke hung over the island, rising from a section of the forest deep in the interior.
Despite the obvious failure of the stop, however, the final blow of an already miserable season, his crew thought Cobber seemed strangely satisfied. In fact, as the first mate reported to his messmates, when the merchant gave the order to set a course for Freeport he was smiling as though it had been his best year ever.
CAP RENVOORT'S LUCK
"Sail in the north," cried the lookout, and Liam Rhenford winced on the quarterdeck. It was not necessarily the pirate but he feared it was, and he could tell from the worried looks exchanged by the mate and the Old Man that they feared it too.
"Masthead there," he called, "any pennant?"
"It's on the horizon, Cap," the lookout shouted back. "Just the sail as yet."
Liam caught the Old Man and the mate in another look.
"Probably a fishing smack," he said, as calmly as he could. "I'm going below. Call me if you make out a pennant."
Forcing himself to go slowly, he went down the ladder to the waist of the ship and then into his own cabin. Once there he bunched his fists and indulged in a silent curse.
There were no fishing smacks abroad in Rushcutter's Bay that season, no vessels of any kind, except his and the pirate's. Only he had been foolish enough to make sail, and now he was caught.
He gave himself a full quarter hour of despair, berating himself for his stupidity, then began making plans. He pulled out charts, established his position, gauged wind and current. His ship, the Pride of Dordrecht, was no fast sailer but after a long set of calculations he figured to make the port he was headed for in three days. If he could stay out of the pirate's hands that long he would be safe.
Not that a port was necessarily so safe, given the pirate's reputation. In addition to the huge number of ships he had taken and sunk in his extraordinary three month campaign, he had sacked three cities. Still, poor hope was better than no hope, and if the Pride of Dordrecht was caught on the sea its destruction was certain.
There was a knock on his cabin door, and by the confident sound of the knuckles he knew who it was.
"Come," he called.
The Old Man entered, touching his forehead casually. The other crewmembers treated him with considerably more respect, but Liam accepted the informality. If the ancient sailor hadn't volunteered to sail with him, none of the younger ones would have come.
"Well, Cap Renvoort, our luck's out."
He frowned grimly. It certainly seemed that way.
"We can make Ushant in three days. We only have to stay clear until then." Ushant was the Freeporter colony they were headed for, with a cargo of lamp oil and wool.
The Old Man smiled. "The Pride'll never outrun 'im. Den Huys'll have us for sure."
Liam's frown deepened. The Dordrechters seemed unable to separate myth from reality. The present pirate had taken the name of a long-dead sea rover, a nightmare who had ruled Rushcutter's Bay almost a century before, but they refused to see the difference. Liam had not grown up in the Freeports; the infamous name had never been used to frighten him as a child, and he could not understand the atavistic fear they associated with it.
"It's not Den Huys, you know. It's just a clever man who's taken the name."
The Old Man gave him a knowing look. "Sure, Cap. But he'll have us anyway."
"I mean, it's impossible. Den Huys has been dead for 80 years."
He would have gone on, but the Old Man's smile stopped him. He should have known better than to try to argue the Dordrechter out of his prejudices. He couldn't even make them pronounce his name properly.
"In any case, we've got a chance. It's only three days, and the Pride runs well."
"Not well enough," the Old Man said, his smile deepening as the frustration showed on Liam's face. Liam was aware suddenly of the difference in their ages. He was only 28, while the man he commanded was easily twice, if not three times, as old. That he was captain at all was the result of a fluke, the fact that he alone of all those capable of running a ship had dared the pirate's lake. And he was also aware that he only had a crew because the Old Man had volunteered, and his reputation was such that other sailors had followed.
The sailors had trusted the Old Man, the Old Man had trusted him, and he had trusted his luck to make the journey without encountering the pirate who called himself Den Huys. Now his luck had deserted him.
Liam started, surprised at the way the Old Man had read his thoughts.
"No," he said at last, and firmly. "It's not over yet."
He went up on deck. The Old Man, an approving expression on his lined face, followed in his wake.
* * *
It was several hours before the lookout confirmed their fears. The sail on the horizon had grown, the hull gradually appearing, until the sharpest set of eyes on the ship called out.
"There's a pennant, Cap!"
On the quarterdeck, Liam frowned again and paused before answering.
"Skull and crossed bones," was the reply, and the phrase was repeated in a fearful whisper by the off-watch seaman who had gathered in the ship's waist.
"Belay that," Liam growled. As if no one but the ancient pirate of dark legend could fly that pennant, he thought. The sailors spoke no more, but milled restlessly in the waist until the Old Man dispersed them with quiet words. Liam was grateful for the support, and turned his attention to the northern horizon.
It was a clear, hot day, and he could just barely make out the sail at the extremity of vision, miles away. It was just a smudge, but a bar of black outlined it against the sky.
"Mate," he asked, "what do you think of the sky there?"
The mate shook his head, as if to clear it of the vision of the pursuing ship, and examined the thin line where the sea met the sky.
"Storm," he said suddenly, a smile breaking on his face. "A storm out of the north."
Liam smiled too, slightly relieved. If the storm caught up with them before the pirate did, they might escape in the murk. He called out a volley of commands, and the sailors jumped eagerly to work.
* * *
The afternoon passed in a flurry of tasks. The barrels of oil and bales of wool had to be secured, storm canvas fitted out, a hundred small things attended to. Both the pirate ship and the storm line grew closer, but by nightfall there was still a considerable gap between them and the Pride of Dordrecht. Liam retired to his cabin when the first stars showed in the sky, and was offering prayers to the Storm King when the Old Man rapped the door with his confident knuckles.
"Come," Liam said.
"Well, Cap, seems I spoke too early."
"About my luck?"
"Aye," the Old Man said, tapping lightly on one of the cabin's beam. Liam copied the gesture, touching the wood of the bulkhead behind him.
"We may yet get away. If the storm hits before the pirate, we might lose him. The bay is big."
"We'll want to make port when we can, Cap. Even if we lose him, Den Huys'll smell us out wheresoever we are, unless it's a port."
Liam shook his head, and risked a confident laugh. "I know there's no point, but I'm going to tell you again. It's not Den Huys. He's been dead a hundred years, and this is just a clever impostor."
"Not dead, Cap Renvoort, just marooned. He's a wizard, after all. What's a hundred years to him?"
Catching at the statement, Liam raised a finger. "That's a good point. But if he is a wizard, how come no one's seen him work any magic? There's been no reports of demons summoned, or magic winds, or anything of the sort. If he's a wizard, how come no one he's attacked has mentioned the use of magic?" He smiled, sure he had made a telling argument.
"No one he's attacked has lived to mention anything," the Old Man answered softly. "We'll just have to hope for Ushant."
With that he left Liam to his cabin.
* * *
The next morning dawned fair and clear like the last. The pirate ship was much closer, but so was the storm line, and Liam went up to the quarterdeck in good spirits. They were now only two days from Ushant, and it seemed like the storm would hit before the pirate. He checked the positions, smiled, and called over the Old Man, who was teaching knots to a group of younger seamen. The sailor scrambled nimbly up the ladder to the quarterdeck, wearing nothing but a pair of salt-stained breeches. His skin was leathery, his eyes perpetually squinting. Liam considered his own pale skin and the linen trousers and shirt he was wearing, and wondered once again what mad impulse had made him volunteer to captain the Pride.
Gods, give me luck, he prayed, and greeted the Old Man.
"That storm line is closer."
"Aye," the Old Man said, squinting back over the rail at the horizon, letting his gaze rest pointedly on the pirate. "But so's Den Huys."
"Yes," Liam agreed reluctantly.
"He's making near a mile an hour on us."
"That much? How long for the storm, do you think?"
The Old Man paused, sniffed. "They're neck and neck, I'd say. It's a toss-up which'll have us first."
Liam realized the sailor was being deliberately obscure. At sea, he knew, it was bad luck to predict, to try to pin fate down. He gave up asking, and began a tour of the ship.
* * *
The hours crept on. At the mate's suggestion Liam ordered the ballast shifted, and they saw a slight gain in speed as the Pride rode the waves better. The pirate, though, still gained, and by noon the sharp-eyed lookout could count all her sails.
Liam stood at the rail, staring back at the distant ship and the even-more distant storm line. He was not unaware, however, of the murmuring in the crew, or the little knots of sailors that the Old Man broke up from time to time. They thought it was the old Den Huys after them, a black mage with demons and thunderbolts at his command. Liam could not blame them for being afraid, and was only glad he had the Old Man to keep them in line. If they could only stay ahead long enough for the storm to break, they might well escape.
In the midafternoon, with the pirate's hull easily discernible from the quarterdeck and the solid bar of the storm dissolving into individual black thunderheads, Liam went down to his cabin and ate.
He had just finished his meal when he heard the Old Man's knock, and called him in.
"Which is closer?"
"Den Huys, a-course. She's a devil of a ship he's got. The boy at the masthead says it old Cobber Waakzam's ship, the Bright Feather, lost last season. A sweet sailer. He'll be on us by dusk."
Liam frowned and dropped his eyes to the floor. "We could cut for the coast, but with the wind so strong for south we'd lose time going east. We'll have to hope for the storm. There's nothing else."
"Aye," the Old Man said. "Nothing else."
Liam stood and stretched, self-reproach and frustration hidden. "Have the mate break out the weapons. We can at least fight."
The Old Man laughed harshly. "Against magic? Cap Renvoort, we'll stand a better chance with your luck than with swords! Den Huys is gonna burn us to the waterline before he's even in hailing distance!"
Liam was not normally impatient, nor intolerant, and he knew he was a much less experienced sailor than the Old Man. But he had spent enough of the night berating himself for leading the ship into danger to have it, as he thought, thrown in his face.
"Look you, get those weapons out and distributed! I'm still captain here, at least until your precious dead pirate blasts us into pieces." He paused, and when the Old Man did not move, only stood regarding him coolly, he shouted: "Hop, you bastard! Move!"
Almost the moment the Old Man was out of the cabin, Liam regretted his outburst. There was nothing he could do about it, though. He was captain, and the custom on Freeport ships was for the captain to remain aloof. He had violated enough of that spirit by his frequent consultations with the Old Man - he could not stoop lower and apologize to him.
Liam remained alone with his thoughts for the next hour, brooding in his cabin. There was a gallery window that provided him a view of the sea behind; the Pride's furrow-straight wake cut the clear turquoise of Rushcutter's Bay in a line that ran directly to the distant pirate. It was like a lifeline, tethering the two together across the expanse of water. Liam stared heavily at the other ship, noting its rapid approach.
Sitting in a tavern in Dordrecht, it had not seemed so difficult a task to captain a ship across the bay. He had not imagined that the pirate would find him, and had thought that the older captains who refused to sail were, if not cowards, at least old maidish. Now he thought they were far wiser than he; he had not connected then the fact that volunteering implicated not just himself, but the crew that followed him and the ship he captained. He had reckoned it a purely personal venture, a gesture of courage, not responsibility. And the responsibility weighed on him. It had made him snap at the Old Man, who was his staunchest supporter with the crew, and was clouding his thinking.
He knew there must be a way to escape the pirate, a logical plan that would have made itself apparent to a more seasoned captain, but he could not discover it. He could only trust to his luck, and to the storm line behind the pirate.
* * *
On deck late in the afternoon, both the storm line and the pirate were far closer. Standing alone by the stern rail, Liam could make out both individual sails and individual thunderheads. In an hour, maybe less, both storm and pirate would be in hailing distance. He squinted sourly across the water, frustrated and unwilling to show it to the crew, which had again gathered in little knots in the ship's waist. Occasionally one of the knots would send an envoy to the Old Man, ensconced on a mass of cordage in the forepeak.
Liam furtively watched these approaches, noting the way the Old Man sent each away with their questions unanswered, and wondering what was being asked. Now more than ever he regretted having blown up at the ancient sailor. A dead hush had fallen over the ship, despite the song of wind in the rigging and the creak of the hull. The leadsman had stopped throwing the log; the Pride's speed was insignificant compared to the speed of the ship behind.
They won't mutiny, Liam thought, what good would it do them?
He allowed himself a grim laugh at the idea, and turned back to his study of their pursuers.
* * *
Dusk brought many things. The sun was westering on the horizon; the pirate was almost within hailing distance. Liam could see that she was big - far bigger than the Pride, with high sides and four masts crammed with sail. The growing distinctness of the pirate's ship, which many of the crew recognized, sent a murmur of dismay among them, and sparked an intense round of discussion in the waist. Liam was aware of it, and very little surprised when a sailor came up on the quarterdeck, an obvious deputy.
"Cap Renvoort," he said, coughing respectfully and knuckling his forehead.
Liam swung around to face him and the sailor quailed; it was not Freeport custom to question the captain, and he obviously did not relish his charge.
"Cap Renvoort," he stammered, "we in the crew've been thinking."
"It's Rhenford," Liam said softly. In the hours since the knots had formed in the crew, he had been preparing himself for such as this. "You're mispronouncing it."
"My name. You're mispronouncing it. It's Rhenford."
"Yes, Cap," the sailor said, confused by Liam's comment, then hurried on: "As I said, we've been thinking, and we wonder if we oughtn't turn to and give up. Maybe Den Huys'll let us go, and just take the ship. At least, that's what we've been thinking. Cap."
Liam frowned, appearing to consider the proposal, then raised his head and looked out over the crew. He noticed that the weapons - bows, axes, a few rusty swords and spears - had been handed out, but that the sailors held them carelessly, and with a certain distrust. They stared up at him, awaiting his response. He also saw that the Old Man was still on his rope seat in the forepeak, watching the proceedings with apparent indifference.
"Look you," Liam said, raising his voice to address the crew directly, "we could turn to and give in, if this were any normal pirate. Gods, if this were any normal pirate, we could even fight. But it's not. It's Den Huys, as you well know, and he's a black magician who takes no prisoners. If we turn to, we're dead. But if we keep on, and that squall hits us before he does, we may keep out of his hands. It's a small chance, but with luck we may get away. I give you the choice - turn to and die at Den Huys' hands, or keep on and maybe get away."
There was a profound hush, and Liam looked to the Old Man, who nodded once in approval. The sailors in the waist began to mutter among themselves, considering the choice the captain had offered. Liam remained aloof, looking up at the rigging, as if he were considering the set of the sails. A million thoughts raced through his head, not the least of which was to ask whether he really believed now that the pirate chasing them was the Den Huys of legend. In the minutes while he waited for the crew to decide, a strange premonition stole over him that it really was the wizard pirate, risen from his grave to harry the Pride - and Liam - to the ends of Rushcutter's Bay. He shivered as the sun sank into the water, though the night was warm.
Gods, what if it really is the old Den Huys? What if he blows us out of the water before that storm hits?
* * *
It seemed like hours before the crew decided, but it was only minutes. In those minutes, however, two things happened: the pirate closed to within a mile of the Pride, and the storm line visibly picked up speed.
The crew had recalled its deputy and given him their message; he walked back to the quarterdeck, again obviously unhappy, and prepared to tell Liam the crew's decision.
He never had the chance. As he set foot on the quarterdeck, a booming roar of thunder shook the sea, momentarily tearing the wind out of the Pride's sails and setting them flapping. Then a voice shouted out of the clear sky.
"Ahoy, Pride of Dordrecht! Turn to and prepare to be boarded! This is the Death, Den Huys master, and we mean to have your souls and your ship! Turn to!"
The hail came from all around, in a whistle of wind and punctuated by cracks of thunder. Many of the crew fell to their knees in fear, including the deputy, but Liam only spun around to face the pursuing ship. He was glad that he had told the men it was the Den Huys of old who followed; it was clear that only a wizard could send such a hail, and besides, there was no way short of sorcery for the other ship to have seen their name, painted as it was in the bow.
Still, the sight of the pirate so close made him clutch the rail and set his heart beating fast; if Den Huys could send his voice a mile across the open sea, what else could he send?
A second later the answer came: a brilliant flash of light that struck the mainmast and rent a topsail in two, reducing the ship's way. The Pride shuddered, sending more of the crew tumbling to the deck.
Liam stared in awe at the sail, the torn edges sprouting fingers of flame that began to spread across the canvas. The immensity of the magic struck him speechless, and it was the Old Man who answered the danger.
"Get up there, you monkeys," he shouted, leaping from the pile of cordage to slap two sailors into action. "Up, and cut it free! We'll burn to the waterline!" The sailors he hit came to their sense and scrambled up the ratlines; a few others followed their example, pulling knives to cut free the burning topsail. Liam, though, and most of the crew, simply stared at their efforts.
The Old Man trotted across the deck to where Liam stood and placed himself squarely before the captain.
"Well," Liam said thickly, "it looks like you were right."
"They're neck and neck," the Old Man said, pointing over Liam's shoulder. Liam turned and saw at first only the Death, all sail crowded on, bearing down on them like a demon; but then he tore his eyes away from it and saw that the storm was just beyond it, and rapidly gaining. In a moment the black clouds had swept over the Death, and for the first time Liam could accurately gauge its rate of approach.
"Gods," he whispered, "it's a real blow." Then he turned to the Old Man: "We've got to get braced."
The sailor nodded again, and dashed off into the waist to rouse the still-dazed majority of the crew.
"Into the lines," Liam shouted, "it's a real blow!"
By the time the burning topsail had been cut away and the stunned crew brought to their senses, the Death was completely obscured by the approaching storm, but another hail came nonetheless.
"Ahoy the Pride! I'll have your damned souls, storm or no!"
The crew paid this no attention, their attention rivetted on the black squall the rushed across the ocean to engulf them. Piracy and black magic they could not counter, but preparing for a storm, no matter how monstrous it appeared, was something they knew. In a matter of minutes they had the Pride battened down, storm canvas fully rigged and all but the most crucial sails hoisted in.
There was a full minute of waiting, with everything prepared, before the storm hit them with full force. All eyes focused on the raging clouds and the vicious, hissing curtain of rain, the pirate hidden in its depths forgotten for the moment.
It hit them like a snarling tiger, a palpable darkness with a thousand lashing whips, an angry wall of water and wind that seemed bent on overwhelming them all at once. Two sails split immediately and Liam, desperately clutching the rail to avoid being swept away, was completely blinded in the first minutes. It was all any one could do simply to stay with the ship, and a man was torn out of the rigging by the storm's prying fingers without anyone noticing.
The first angry blow of the storm was its greatest, and when the front of the storm had passed them, its anger was spent, though not its strength. After long minutes of blind clutching at the rail and feverish praying, Liam found he could open his eyes and stand, though water still poured down from the sky and the wind howled, gusting strongly through the rags of the sails. Stumbling through the rivers that gushed along the deck, he made sure of the mate at the wheel and sent sailors along the deck, shouting orders directly into men's ears and ensuring that the ship would still sail.
The force of the storm was amazing; he had never seen one so strong and from the look on the Old Man's face when he came to the quarterdeck, he was impressed as well.
"It's hell's own blow," Liam shouted into the ancient sailor's ear.
"Doesn't seem to've stopped him," the Old Man shouted back, jerking a thumb over the rail. Liam followed his gesture and dimly made out the Death, cresting a giant wave behind them. He swore to himself, and then shook his head. It could not matter. If the storm hung on long enough, they would have to lose the pirate - unless they broached to beneath the towering waves, or shipped so much water they sank. Liam briefly wondered if the storm wasn't the worse of their two enemies.
A single bolt of light lancing from the Death convinced him it was not. The magic shot out and crashed into the crest of a wave as the Pride rode up it, flames momentarily playing along the surging water and then dying out.
At least he can miss, Liam thought.
* * *
The Pride rode the storm all through the night, rising and falling on the mountainous waves, struggling to keep canvas on the masts and the sea out of the hold. Great sheets of cold water crashed across the decks, rendering fingers numb and lifelines slick and treacherous. Three more men went overboard as the ship raced on before the blow.
Liam kept his post on the quarterdeck, scarcely aware of the line by which the Old Man had secured him to the rail, or the thick cloak the sailor had brought him. Some captains might have gone below - there was little he could order of which the mate or the Old Man wouldn't have already thought. But he had never mastered the art of sleeping in a storm at sea, and the idea of huddling below in the cold, wet darkness of his cabin did not appeal to him. So he struggled for footing against the waves and the rain and kept his position behind the two men now required to hold the wheel, watching as best he could the Pride's progress, and that of their pursuer.
The Death kept pace with them, seen occasionally three or four wavecrests behind, rising high above them for a moment to disappear down into a trough. At each descent Liam offered a prayer that Den Huys' ship would not rise, but each time it did, cresting the peaks like an avenging demon, all sails set in a gesture that defied the power of the storm's winds.
Bolts of lightning, more brilliant and fearsome by far than the natural ones of the storm, shot from the Death toward the Pride. Most fell unheeded into the angry sea, coruscating on the black water, but a number struck home, setting rigging and yards blazing with fire despite the downpour. Sailors scrambled out to cut away the ropes and wood hit by the magic, dropping them into the sea. One bolt struck the rail to Liam's left, and he snatched up an axe to help hew away the afflicted wood. As the last piece fell another bolt streaked overhead and, turning, he watched it catch a sailor high in the rigging full in the chest. With a cry heard over the full-throated roar of the storm, the man fell like a flaming star into the sea. He sank, but the magic fire continued to burn around him and long moments passed before it disappeared into the depths.
Throughout the night the storm wore on. Liam was completely numb, his drenched cloak like a lead weight on his shoulders, and toward dawn he became aware of a cloudiness of mind. He sensed that the gale's power was diminishing, but he could not bring himself to consider what that meant. The Death was still close behind them; running out of the storm meant facing the pirate as before, with the ship in far worse condition. The rigging and yards were a shambles, the sails mere rags. They could not hope to do more than run a few miles before they were caught.
By insensible stages the storm wore itself out. The howling slowly dropped in pitch, and the sea flattened itself in a process so gradual it could not be perceived until it was done. The lashing rain resolved into a steady downpour, which slowed to a drizzle.
Liam watched all this apathetically. The long run before the storm and the sense that his luck had run out oppressed him, driving all conscious thought away and reducing him to a bystander in the ship's progress.
The sailors at first took the calming of the storm as a good sign, but they quickly realized that the Death was with them, and set grimly to prolonging the chase as long as possible. The Old Man circulated among them, giving the orders Liam should have, keeping them at the necessary tasks long after their exhausted bodies should have given out.
It was not an issue of seamanship that roused Liam from his torpor, but a question of money. Dawn had come behind the clouds, diffusing a dull grey glow over the sea; the rain slackened. The positions of the day before were resumed - the Pride still in front, the Death ever closer. The Old Man had set all possible sail, but it was clear that they could not stay out of the pirate's hands for more than an hour. With a glum expression the sailor trudged up to the quarterdeck and approached Liam.
"Well, Cap, it looks like we've almost reached the end of our run."
Liam only grunted, sunk in his own dark thoughts.
"We can get a few more miles out of her," the Old Man went on, "if we could start the wool over the side. It's shipped a mess of water, and's weighing heavy in the hold."
Slowly the idea penetrated Liam's mind, and his first reflection on it was that, even faced with a deadly pirate and a vicious storm, the Freeporters' respect for property made throwing away cargo an important issue. Then, by degrees, he made himself consider the situation, and at last brought himself to agree.
"Very well. Toss it over the side."
The Old Man allowed himself a brief, querying look at Liam, wondering at the leaden tone of the captain's voice, then set the crew to pitching the heavy, sodden bundles of prickly wool over the side. It took the better part of an hour, and when it was done the Pride had gained appreciably in speed, enough to maintain an even distance from the Death. When it was done, the Old Man went back up to the quarterdeck.
"Cap Renvoort, if we could toss the oil as well, we could gain a little more speed."
"It's Rhenford," Liam said, a small smile playing over his lips. "And no, we'll need the oil. Have the men set to preparing the boats."
The Old Man was as much surprised by the captain's new expression of purpose as by his earlier dullness, but he obeyed.
Liam had been set thinking by the jettisoning of the wool, and by the nearness of the Death. Since the storm had stopped no more bolts had come from the pirate, and Liam imagined that the other ship bore an even grimmer appearance as it came on beneath the lowering clouds. An imaginative leap suggested something to him: Den Huys did not mean now just to sink Pride, or burn it with magic from a distance. He now wanted to punish them for the long chase in the storm. And that suggested something further.
Dropping his heavy cloak to the deck, Liam strode quickly off the quarterdeck and went below.
* * *
When Liam came back on deck an hour later, all was clearly lost. The Death was less than half a mile behind, though no more hails had come. The rain had stopped and the clouds were breaking up, offering long glimpses of the surface of Rushcutter's Bay littered with storm wrack. To the east, glimpses of coastline could be made out. Liam went to the rail and considered these for a moment. The Old Man joined him.
"The storm's brought us in close. Shore's only a few miles away," he observed.
"Yes," Liam said, his earlier smile still on his face. He looked tired and dirty, smudged by the filth of the lowest holds. "Are the boats ready?"
"Aye, Cap. What's the plan?"
"We'll pull in as close to the coast as we can, then disembark. We'll lower the boats on the far side, so they can't see us, then pull like madmen for land."
The Old Man shook his head. "Den Huys'll blow our little boats out of the water. It's best maybe to stay and fight it out."
To his surprise, Liam laughed and clapped him on the back. "Don't worry about that. He'll be so busy with the Pride he won't notice our boats. Now make sure they're ready to be dropped."
With that he jogged up to the man at the wheel and had him set the ship in toward land.
* * *
They did not get much closer, just enough to make out the low dunes and marshes in more detail. The pirate was still several cable lengths away, a full fifteen minutes' of sailing, when Liam gave the order to turn to. Shrugging, the mate complied, spinning the wheel and turning the ship in a tight arc at right angles to present her port side to the approaching Death, her bow pointed at the land. Seaman in the rigging dropped the sails, slowing the Pride's way.
"Over the side," Liam called, smiling slightly at the eagerness with which the crew scrambled to get down into the boats that were dropped over the starboard side. He took the wheel himself, keeping the ship steady as she slowed. When most of the men were disembarked, he let the wheel go and paused, watching the Death. It came down fast now, all sail crowded on, its broad bow aimed straight at the waist of the Pride. An eery silence descended on the scene, and for a moment Liam wondered what he was doing. Then, with a shake of his head and a harsh laugh, he ran below to secure his luck.
When he came back on deck with an unlit torch, all the boats but one were away, pulling hard for the coast. In the last, the Old Man stood and called up to him.
"Cap Renvoort, we'd best be off!"
"Go on," Liam replied from the rail, grinning. "I'm staying with the ship."
"Cap, you can't!"
"Go!" Liam shouted angrily. "That's an order!" The sailors at the oars exchanged questioning looks, but he did not wait to see them off. With an impatient gesture he turned from the rail.
Just fore of the mainmast was a hatch that opened on the main hold. He went to it and began tugging at the heavy wooden top, sliding and pushing it open. Looking up between heaves he saw the Death closing the final gap, still racing like an arrow directly at the Pride's middle.
The hatch proved obstinate. The wood, thick to begin with and now thoroughly soaked, refused to budge, no matter how he tugged at it. With increasing desperation he threw himself at it, tearing his fingers along its edges, wrenching his muscles. A look showed him the Death impossibly close; he could make out the individual faces of pirates gathered in the bow, glaring angrily over at the Pride. Still the hatch would not open.
Then suddenly the Old Man was at his side, pulling with him. Between the two of them they managed to force open the hatch, tossing it aside as the Death suddenly veered hard, only yards from the Pride, and the two ships swung parallel to each other.
Liam and the Old Man straightened from the hatch and looked at each other for a moment.
"Is this your luck?"
"Yes," Liam replied, nodding gratefully down through the hatch. "I've been keeping it in the hold."
Then the Death came alongside, with a grating crash of wood grinding on wood. The pirate's sides were far higher than the Pride's, and the two men stared up at the collection of grim privateers ranged along the rail above them. Their hands rested on skulls nailed to the wood of the rail, a row of bleached, denuded bone that marked their conquests. There was no sound but the flap of slack sails, and the crack of the skull-and-crossbones pennant, snapping in the wind.
Den Huys stood out among his crew not by his features - he looked like any Freeport trader, short and dark with broad, plain features - but by the angry fire in his eyes and the fearful space his crew granted him as he strode to the rail. He uttered a short, scornful laugh.
"So this is the pride of Dordrecht," he said and then, placing his hands on two skulls, vaulted over the rail and dropped down onto the lower deck. He landed smoothly, with catlike grace, and stood up to face Liam and the Old Man. Wearing an immaculate tunic of black velvet and a long, silver-embroidered cloak, he made a strange contrast to the other two men, whose clothes were torn and salt-stained. He eyed them disdainfully from across the hatch.
"Which is captain?"
"I am," Liam said, bending down to pick up the torch he had dropped to open the hatch.
"You've angered me," Den Huys said simply, and then gestured four times with his finger. Each gesture called out a bolt of lightning; the first struck the Pride's colors, incinerating them, and the other three struck the deck around Liam, setting a small circle of wood ablaze. "Now I'll have to hunt down your boats one by one to get my trophies."
"Sorry," Liam said, gripping his torch tighter. The Old Man stood silently at his shoulder.
Den Huys smiled warily. "No apologies are necessary, captain. I'm going to honor you. After you die - which will take a long time, I assure you - I'll have your skull nailed to my mainmast. You've led me the longest and best chase I've had in quite some time."
"It was my pleasure, I assure you," Liam replied smoothly, letting the torch dip down to the circle of magic fire around him. It caught quickly, smoking. The scent of burning pine resin filled the air, and Den Huys suddenly started, catching another smell.
"You bastard, what's your cargo?"
"Lamp oil," Liam said, and threw the burning torch into the hold. As one, he and the Old Man turned and sprinted for the rail, throwing themselves over.
Liam had broken open as many casks as he could in his time below, and most of the hold was awash with oil. The first explosion shattered the Pride's deck, flinging sharp splinters and hunks of wood into the massed crew of the Death and engulfing Den Huys in a sheet of flame. Before Liam and the Old Man had surfaced, flames were running up the side of the pirate from the ruined hull of the Pride, and the sea was littered with burning scraps of wood.
A flying piece of rail had caught Liam in the side, and he found he could barely tread water. The Old Man threw an arm around his shoulders and starting dragging him through the sea towards the Pride's boats. From that position, on his back facing the two ships, he watched the flames covering them, fueled by the oil in the Pride, licking hungrily at still-wet rigging and canvas, crackling along the Death's yards and masts. Suddenly a brilliant explosion blotted out the sight, a white-hot burst from what remained of the deck of the Pride. It flared like the sun for a long moment, then subsided, leaving spots in Liam's vision. When his sight cleared, there was little left of either ship.
The Old Man paused in his swimming and looked back at the nearly empty sea.
"That's my luck," Liam said weakly, and gasped at the pain of his bruised ribs where the wood had struck him.
"If that's luck," the Old Man said, resuming his swim toward the coast, "I want no part of it."